The CSTO is a military bloc that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, consisting of the newly independent former Soviet countries that at that time made up the Commonwealth of Independent States. The bloc was designed to facilitate security cooperation between members and had a policy akin to NATO's, in which an attack against one is an attack against all. It began as the Collective Security Treaty in 1992 and by the time the treaty came into effect (for a 5-year period beginning in 1994) it included Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. By 1999, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan had become closer with the West and had withdrawn from the bloc.
As Moscow began its resurgence in the mid-2000s, Russia began to think of the bloc as a vehicle to expand its influence in CSTO member states. Russia also started representing the CSTO as a counter and alternative to NATO in order to build its image as a strong power in the eyes of the rest of the world, especially the West. The military exercises between CSTO member states grew larger and more frequent, while the creation of the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force in 2009 boosted the prestige and capabilities of the organization and was seen as a sign of things to come.
The CSTO has undergone some changes recently, most notably when Uzbekistan suspended its membership in June. Uzbekistan had also suspended its membership in 1998 but restored it in 2006 after a falling out with the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has been independent-minded and skeptical of all Russian-led alliances. Even while it was in the CSTO, Uzbekistan frequently stood alone; Tashkent did not join the bloc's Rapid Reaction Force and often did not participate in CSTO military exercises.
However, Uzbekistan did find CSTO membership useful because it allowed the country to stay informed of other member states and to keep them from making any moves within the region that did not serve Uzbek interests. This was the case when Uzbekistan was able to prevent Russia from using the CSTO to significantly increase Russia's military presence in neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But Russia has been working to build up its security presence and influence in these countries bilaterally and in other formats, forcing Uzbekistan to recalculate its position and eventually leave the CSTO.
This move has spurred speculation that Uzbekistan is interested in increasing security cooperation with the West, especially the United States. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan looming and Uzbekistan serving as a key logistical hub for materiel into and out of Afghanistan, this could lay the groundwork for some form of security cooperation between the two countries, including weapons deals. Therefore, this move has dealt a blow to the CSTO's image, though in a practical sense it will have little effect given Uzbekistan's lack of participation in most CSTO matters.
In contrast to Uzbekistan, Belarus has been an adamant supporter of the CSTO. It was an active participant in the creation of the Rapid Reaction Force, and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has even suggested expanding the CSTO charter to allow the use of these forces to prevent coups within member countries. Such moves have both domestic and foreign motivations.
Domestically, Lukashenko is concerned about any opposition to his rule. He has cracked down on opposition figures and protesters and is especially wary of the opposition's external support from countries such as Lithuania or Sweden (as demonstrated by the recent Teddy Bear airdrop), and he therefore has looked to the CSTO to act as a counterweight in this regard. In foreign affairs, Lukashenko has always tried to position himself as a leader and equal to Putin in any former Soviet grouping. This explains Belarus' enthusiasm for joining not only the CSTO but also other political or economic blocs such as the Customs Union and the Union State with Russia, which Lukashenko hoped would make him vice president or even president of a political merging of the two countries.
Lukashenko's enthusiasm for the CSTO was illustrated during an Aug. 1 meeting with CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha in which Lukashenko urged Bordyuzha to use the CSTO to respond to the recent volatility in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan province. Bordyuzha responded that the situation was an internal affair and that it did not require the intervention of the bloc, though he did say the CSTO could provide material assistance to the Tajik army and police.
This is not the first time Lukashenko has criticized the CSTO for not performing what he considered its rightful functions. Lukashenko said the CSTO should have been used to prevent the April 2010 Kyrgyz revolution, which led to the ouster of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev (who subsequently sought refuge in Belarus). The Kyrgyz leadership requested CSTO intervention only two months later when ethnic violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan, but Bordyuzha also declined, calling the violence a domestic affair.
Capability, Intent and Perception
The CSTO's lack of intervention in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan raises the question of the true intent and capabilities of the military bloc. These were the most serious security challenges the CSTO has seen within its member states, yet it did not intervene. There are several possible reasons for this.
One possibility is that the lack of intervention was a matter of capability: It is very difficult to operate in Kyrgyzstan's and Tajikistan's nearly entirely mountainous terrain, where troop movements are challenged by roads and infrastructure. While Russia is certainly capable of deploying its forces abroad and into unfavorable terrain, as the August 2008 war with Georgia showed, it is not clear if less skilled and experienced troops from Armenia or Kazakhstan would be able to make such deployments. However, CSTO member states can contribute special operations troops, mountain troops and helicopters, so the CSTO's capabilities would depend on the scope and size of the mission. Given Russia's deployments to other difficult terrains such as in the North Caucasus, it would appear then that capability is not the real issue.
A second and more likely possibility for the lack of CSTO deployments is the matter of intent. With the exception of the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, these crises were purely domestic developments rather than foreign military attacks on CSTO members' soil. Since the CSTO was initially designed to counter external military and security aggression, these incidents did not fit its paradigm. However, given the expansion of the CSTO charter in recent years, to incorporate other elements such as combating domestic terrorism and other internal issues seemingly would have included the Kyrgyz and Tajik issues within the CSTO's operational capacity. Yet the CSTO chose to avoid major intervention in these cases, raising the question of the bloc's — and particularly Russia's — political will to intervene. Notably, the Kyrgyz revolution and ethnic violence occurred shortly after the formation of the Rapid Reaction Force, and it is possible that the bloc did not feel it had enough practice and training to deploy. But it has been several years now and the CSTO decided to stay out of the recent violence in Tajikistan as well, so the question of intent still lingers.
The last factor is the bloc's image and others' perception, particularly the West's. A CSTO deployment dominated by Russia would undermine the notion that the CSTO is a truly multinational military bloc, thereby weakening its legitimacy in the eyes of the West and furthering the notion that it is yet another example of Russian aggression or adventurism in its near abroad. Even though NATO is widely perceived as dominated by the United States in terms of decision-making, other members' militaries, such as the British and French, have made important operational contributions to interventions such as those in Libya or Yugoslavia. It is less clear that CSTO members could make such active contributions.
Ultimately, it is no secret that Russia is the dominant power of the CSTO. The key difference between the CSTO and NATO is that NATO has deployed many times before but the CSTO has not. Moving forward, it will be important to discover the circumstances in which the CSTO would actually deploy, and even then, how successful it would be.