- The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Eurasian military alliance led by Russia, will face mounting challenges to its cohesion and efficacy in the coming year.
- Because of tension among member states and Moscow's aversion to embroiling the bloc in foreign conflicts, the CSTO's scope and capabilities will remain limited.
- Nevertheless, the CSTO will continue to be a viable platform for joint military exercises and other forms of narrow security cooperation, though Russia will largely depend on other methods of extending its reach in the region.
For nearly a decade, Russia has tried to use the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to make inroads into nearby states that once belonged to the Soviet Union. When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, the Moscow-led military bloc emerged from the ensuing turmoil, an alliance designed to serve as a Eurasian NATO of sorts.
Yet despite Russia's best efforts, the CSTO has not become the powerful tool Moscow hoped for. Persistent rifts among member states continue to limit the military bloc's effectiveness, and the Kremlin itself has been hesitant to draw the bloc into conflicts abroad. A Dec. 26 summit revealed just how deep the divisions within the CSTO run when members failed, for a second time, to appoint a replacement for outgoing Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha. Though Bordyuzha's deputy is prepared to assume his position until the next CSTO conference in April, the prospects of the bloc reaching a consensus by then — or finding common ground on other issues — are dubious. Until the organization's cohesion and capabilities improve, Russia will be forced to rely on other means of expanding its military footprint and political influence throughout Eurasia.
A Bloc Divided
The CSTO began in 1992 as the Collective Security Treaty, an agreement struck by the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union that, at the time, formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. The treaty was designed to encourage and facilitate security cooperation among its signatories: An attack against one member was an attack against all, and in its first two years the bloc grew to encompass Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But by 1999, three members — Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan — had withdrawn from the bloc and begun to distance themselves from Russia.
Even so, Moscow had come to think of the bloc as a vehicle for gaining influence among its neighbors, particularly as Russia's international heft began to surge in the mid-2000s. Hoping to build its image as a great power, Russia started to present the CSTO to the rest of the world as a counterweight to NATO. Military exercises among the bloc's members grew larger and more frequent, and the creation of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force in 2009 boosted the organization's credibility and prestige on the global stage.
But a series of events soon exposed the CSTO's limitations as an active and responsive military entity. When a wave of ethnic violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, Bishkek asked its fellow bloc members to intervene on its behalf. Bordyuzha, however, declined to take action. The secretary-general, who essentially acts as a conduit for the Kremlin, explained the decision by saying the conflict was a domestic affair. He made a similar argument two years later when he refused Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko's request that the bloc quell clashes between rebels and military forces in the eastern Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan. (Bordyuzha did offer, however, to provide material assistance to the Tajik army and police force.) The CSTO's unwillingness to intervene in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan raised questions about the military bloc's true mission and capabilities. After all, the unrest in both states posed the most serious security challenges the alliance had ever seen within its borders, and yet it did little to address them.
The bloc came under even greater pressure as Russia's standoff with the West intensified in the wake of Ukraine's Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Moscow got involved first in the eastern Ukrainian conflict, then in the Syrian civil war, stretching its military capacity thin. Meanwhile, Eurasian states — including CSTO members Belarus and Armenia — began to re-evaluate their own ties with the West as Kiev reoriented its foreign policy away from Russia. Though Moscow continued to lead joint military exercises and training sessions with its CSTO peers, the bloc remained fractured.
Russia's fortunes began to change in 2016 when the West became mired in its own economic crises and political upheavals. From the United Kingdom's Brexit vote to the United States' contentious presidential election, Western divisions and distractions have given Russia the opportunity to regain some of the influence it lost in the former Soviet sphere. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the CSTO. In the past few months, Moscow has signed new military cooperation deals with Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
Nevertheless, this progress has not translated into the advancement of the bloc as a whole. This was apparent in the repeated delays of the selection of a new CSTO chief, caused largely by a continued lack of quorum needed to vote on a candidate. (Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev failed to attend the CSTO's October 2016 summit, while the Belarusian delegation was not present at the bloc's December 2016 summit.)
The absences probably aren't a coincidence. According to several reports, Russia allegedly promised an Armenian representative Bordyuzha's post. Such a move affirms Moscow's support for Yerevan after the Kremlin adopted a position of neutrality last April in Armenia's renewed conflict with Azerbaijan over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Because Kazakhstan and Belarus maintain strong ties to Azerbaijan, there is speculation that neither country is willing to accept an Armenian candidate as the CSTO's next secretary-general.
The coming months will not be easy for the bloc as it searches for solutions to its leadership vacancies and to divisive issues such as the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The CSTO has never been a particularly cohesive coalition, but disputes over the bloc's next secretary-general could undermine its unity even further. This is not to say that the CSTO is doomed to become irrelevant or collapse outright — Russia could choose to resolve the issue of Bordyuzha's succession by nominating a less controversial figure, such as another ethnic Russian candidate. Moscow may also advocate greater integration among CSTO weapons systems and missile defense initiatives as the bloc continues to engage in joint military and counterterrorism endeavors.
Nevertheless, the CSTO will fall short of its original aspirations to become a military alliance on par with NATO. Instead the bloc will serve as a platform for limited defense cooperation, leaving Russia leery of depending on it to resolve security matters that emerge in individual member states. And as Moscow focuses on using bilateral relationships rather than the CSTO's infrastructure to increase dominion over its Eurasian neighbors, the bloc will continue to limp along, hampered in what actions it can take and how well it can accomplish them.