Russia: Using CSTO to Claim Influence in the FSU

5 MINS READFeb 23, 2009 | 21:23 GMT
Once a loosely organized military alliance of former Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) could be transformed into more of a NATO-like alliance, complete with U.N. peacekeeping responsibilities. As the dominant member of the alliance, Russia recently announced plans to form a CSTO rapid-reaction force, which could be positioned to remind NATO of Russia's renewed strength and the challenges involved in defending the Baltic states.
As rumors fly regarding a possible Russian military buildup under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), STRATFOR has obtained some details about the proposed rapid-reaction force, including the countries Russia could pressure as it tries to transform the ad hoc military organization. CSTO has traditionally been an unorganized military alliance among many of the former Soviet states — Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Formed in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russia-dominated security organization was intended to replace the Warsaw Pact as Moscow's security bulwark. Instead, the organization ended up being limited to sporadic military exercises used to make political points. The largest military exercise CSTO has ever held involved only 4,000 troops in 2008. CSTO has been successful in controlling border issues, such as drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, but beyond that it has been little more than a Russian claim to influence in the former Soviet Union. But Russia is now talking about transforming the security organization into much more. In October 2007, CSTO members agreed to a major expansion that would allow CSTO forces to serve, as NATO forces do, as peacekeepers under a U.N. mandate. But no real expansion was seen. Then on Feb. 4, 2009, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that CSTO would create a collective rapid-reaction force that would be "just as good as comparable NATO forces." STRATFOR sources have indicated that this rapid-reaction force would be made up of approximately 16,000 troops — a large increase from the 1,500 troops CSTO currently has at its disposal and another 2,000 CSTO troops currently deployed in Central Asia. The new rapid-reaction force reportedly would consist of 8,000 Russians, 4,000 Kazakhs (most likely Russian Kazakhs) and 1,000 troops each from Tajikistan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. This force, merely on paper at present, would be the first real institutionalization of CSTO. Granted, being "on paper" doesn’t mean much in Russia, and achieving true interoperability and effective coordination among disparate militaries is no small feat. NATO has been working on that for more than half a century and still stumbles from time to time. Indeed, STRATFOR is still watching for more concrete steps to be taken in implementing the announced changes. But enough information is now known to provide a clear picture of Moscow's intentions. Of the 16,000 troops, Russia is looking to deploy 5,000 to Central Asia — particularly Tajikistan. Russia is already discussing specific locations where these forces could be based. Deployment to the region is understandable. Russia is bracing for a possible blowback — such as violence spilling across the border or forces within Afghanistan hitting back at Russia in Central Asia — as the United States begins its surge into Afghanistan with Russian help in transporting supplies. There are two other spheres of influence where Russia is said to be planning to deploy its reconfigured security alliance. The first is in Armenia, where Russia already has some 5,000 troops stationed. It is unclear just how many CSTO troops would be deployed to Armenia under the new plan, but the focus on locking down the Caucasus is clear. Within that region, only Armenia is a member of CSTO, though Georgia and Azerbaijan have CSTO observer status. Both countries have taken notice of Russia's increasing military presence in Armenia, and Georgia, of course, is particularly concerned. An expanded Russian presence in Armenia would mean that Russian troops not only are on Georgia's northern border (through which Russia invaded Georgia during the August 2008 war) but also have a stronger hold on Georgia's southern border. Baku is also growing concerned but is developing plans to counter Russia and Armenia's military relationship. Azerbaijan — which has looked to NATO member Turkey for protection since the end of the Soviet era — is considering joining CSTO in order to have a say in the strength and deployment of the alliance. Baku has indicated that it would also consider contributing troops to the rapid-reaction force. Another sphere of responsibility for the rapid-reaction force reportedly is an area called the Russia-Belarus zone, though the troops would be kept on stand-by in Russia just outside St. Petersburg and close to the Estonian border. It is most likely that the 8,000 Russian troops designated for the rapid-reaction force would be stationed here, which would be easier to deploy to and would eliminate the need for international cooperation. It would also mean that Russian forces on the Estonian border could outnumber the entire Estonian military, which numbers only 5,300 active-duty troops. Estonia is NATO's front line against Russia and the most difficult front for NATO to defend. Some NATO members are already thinking about this vulnerability. A week after the Russian announcement of a rapid-reaction force, the United Kingdom countered with a proposal to create a NATO rapid-deployment force to defend mainland Europe, although this plan also is just on paper for the moment. Concentrating troops next to Estonia is Russia's way of reminding the former Soviet state and new NATO member — and its alliance — that Russia is no longer as weak as it once was and how difficult it is for NATO to defend the Baltic states.

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