The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a regional military alliance in Eurasia that consists of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Tajikistan. The roots of this military alliance can be traced back to the Collective Security Treaty (CST) in the early 1990s between the post-Soviet countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since its inception, it was perceived as an instrument of power projection for Moscow in the post-Soviet space.
In the early 1990s, many newly independent states (including Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan) were faced with the abrupt end of the Soviet military-industrial complex and military supply chains. This dependence drove them to sign on to the CST and thus sustain access to Russia’s arms and military technologies.
By the time CST morphed into the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2002, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan saw no necessity and held little interest in remaining in the Russia-led military alliance as they had managed to reduce their dependence on Russia’s arms supply and sustain their militaries through other channels (in 2005, Uzbekistan rejoined CSTO, but withdrew from it again in 2012). The withdrawals of Georgia and Azerbaijan were also largely prompted by their concerns over Moscow’s role in undermining their territorial integrity.
Now, it is still worth noting that membership in this alliance has mostly remained more or less in line with the national interests of the member-states, particularly in terms of collective defense from external aggression and access to Russian arms and military technologies. The CSTO’s main purpose since the beginning has been to guarantee security, especially against external threats emanating from the south, namely Afghanistan. Besides mutual defense, the CSTO facilitates joint efforts in countering the illegal circulation of weapons, cyber-attacks, drug trafficking, transnational crime, and terrorism in the region.
However, today’s geopolitical challenges in the Eurasian space are far more volatile than ever before and proving to be detrimental to the CSTO’s cohesiveness. These circumstances raise the potential for a reassessment of the CSTO as a collective security organization in the region. The most salient challenges currently are the unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russia; the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; the border conflict between CSTO members, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; and the divergence of regional interests regarding Afghanistan. These challenges are sowing the seeds of division in the organization, further complicating relations inside the CSTO.
Russia’s Aggression Against Ukraine and the CSTO
Russia has always played the role of a “security guarantor” in Central Asia, especially against threats coming from transnational terrorist organizations. Such groups are currently more active in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s August 2021 return to power. Since February 24, 2022, the date Russia invaded Ukraine, Moscow’s priority has shifted to winning the war in Ukraine, arguably at the cost of the CSTO’s security. Unverified reports indicate that Russia relocated some of its troops from Karabakh and the base in Tajikistan to Ukraine. Russia, as the dominant actor in the CSTO has always set the agenda of the organization. However, now preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, Moscow’s ability to further sustain the CSTO’s regional security architecture may be seriously strained, even in the best-case scenario for the Kremlin.
Due to the dependence of the CSTO members on Russia, all member countries have favored neutrality regarding the Ukraine war and abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the U.N. General Assembly. This does not mean the CSTO members support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, except for the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. None of the members of the CSTO recognize the breakaway states of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics or Crimea, nor do they recognize the newly annexed Ukrainian territories by Russia.
In this context, Kazakhstan is perhaps one of the most prominent examples that explicitly refused to recognize the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine. Kazakhstan officially maintains neutrality regarding the war in Ukraine chiefly because of its economic linkages with Russia. Nonetheless, the question of Ukraine also raises concerns about the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, as Russian state-sponsored propaganda and some officials in Russia occasionally indulge in threatening rhetoric against the country. The war in Ukraine puts Astana in a rather uneasy position with regard to Moscow, despite Kazakhstan’s close economic and strategic relations with Russia, particularly about the CSTO and EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union).
The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict and the CSTO
For Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has been a point of contention since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it should be emphasized that the province is internationally recognized as the territory of Azerbaijan. Since 1994, the conflict has mostly remained frozen with occasional outbreaks of violence in between. However, in 2022 the conflict escalated into a full-scale war between the two countries, ending with Azerbaijan reclaiming most of the territory that it had previously lost. In September 2022, Azerbaijan launched attacks and seized territory inside Armenia (beyond the previously known conflict zone between the two countries). In response, Armenia invoked CSTO Article 4, which is meant to guarantee the “safety, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty” of a member state by all the member countries against external aggression. But, in the aftermath of this event, Armenia was greeted with a small CSTO mission dispatched to do some fact-finding and observation. With Russia preoccupied with its war in Ukraine, it does not come as a surprise that the CSTO’s response was so irresolute. For Yerevan, nevertheless, it is an indication that Russia can no longer guarantee Armenia’s security, which is of particular concern for a country that is sandwiched between two hostile neighbors: Azerbaijan and Turkey. This represents a blot on the credibility of the CSTO in the eyes of the Armenian government and the public. Given Armenia’s precarious geographic situation, it continues to remain a member of the CSTO for now but has also sought security guarantees for itself from the West. In view of Russia’s disregard for Armenia’s security, it is becoming harder to argue in favor of CSTO membership for Armenia into the future.
The Conflict Between CSTO Members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
The ongoing dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has a 30-year history, a period within which the two country’s border disputes have remained unresolved. The cause of the dispute between these two CSTO members is primarily linked to border demarcation and access to roads and water resources. Sporadic border clashes between the two countries have become more frequent and intense since 2021 because of border militarization on both sides. The latest clashes between the two countries in 2022 turned out to be one of the deadliest yet.
The persistence of this long-standing problem also presents a challenge for the CSTO. When we discuss this conflict in the context of the CSTO, it is worth looking at two details: First, the CSTO lacks any proper mechanisms that address conflicts between its member-states, and second, any attempts to put forward a resolution in the border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would invariably produce more complicated and unpredictable outcomes that could likely go beyond a bilateral dispute and deepen mistrust. The conflict between the two countries is a slippery slope issue for the CSTO, namely, for Moscow; any CSTO involvement in the dispute can have adverse implications for the organization.
Lack of a Common Vision Toward the Taliban in Afghanistan
After the signing of the Doha Agreement between the United States and the Taliban, and the subsequent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021, some states became less clandestine about their ties with the group (namely, Pakistan, Qatar, Iran, and Russia) while others began to establish new ties with the Taliban. This relatively new approach toward the Taliban was consequently adopted by other CSTO members. Tajikistan is the only CSTO member that still openly views the Taliban as a threat, but there is no guarantee that Dushanbe’s policy will persist in this manner.
It is worth noting that the formation of the CSTO in 2002 was mainly driven by threats emanating from Afghanistan, chiefly from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, which include militants of Central Asian origins among their ranks. Before August 2021 there was a common vision about the threat coming out of the territory of Afghanistan toward the CSTO. However, after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the national interests of CSTO members took precedence over the previous common vision of security. The national interests of the various CSTO members, at present, do not always align and each CSTO member (and non-CSTO states in the region) pursues its own interests in Afghanistan in cooperation with the Taliban. In practice, this means a lack of common security goals with regard to Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. And that is not an encouraging trend for the cohesiveness and unity of the CSTO, especially against the backdrop of the growing presence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Implications for Central Asia’s Security Architecture
Russia’s war against Ukraine has rippled through the global economy and generated a great deal of geopolitical uncertainty. The war against Ukraine unleashed processes that have invariably affected the Russian-led CSTO; these forces can hardly be regarded as conducive to its cohesiveness and unity. The security architecture of Central Asia, under such complex and unpredictable conditions, may be subject to change. However, it would be erroneous to claim with any kind of certainty where the CSTO is headed. For this reason, the discussion of possible scenarios in this article should be treated as mere speculation.
One possibility is conditioned upon ending the war in Ukraine as soon as possible to retain the CSTO as a functioning and capable military organization. In practice, that means shifting back attention and resources to the CSTO for countering terrorist threats coming from Afghanistan. In this case, the CSTO would still have to go through a multilateral adjustment based on the national interests of its member-states. This scenario is highly unlikely as the Kremlin pulling out of the war in Ukraine without any presentable achievements would be perceived as a clear-cut fiasco. But a prolonged war (a war of attrition) is also untenable because the longer the war lasts, the more severe and pervasive the ramifications are going to be for Russia given the unpopularity of the war inside Russia, the substantial death toll of Russian conscripts, and ongoing international sanctions and isolation. Under such conditions, there may come a day when Russia is not able to project power and maintain its role in upholding the security architecture of Central Asia.
There is no indication that the Russian government wants to end the war in Ukraine now. For instance, the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by the Kremlin is yet another escalatory decision. Even if Moscow, hypothetically, decides to in some way freeze the war through negotiations, Ukraine has been clear that it will not agree to negotiations that do not restore its complete territorial integrity.
The effect of a prolonged war will eventually be more detrimental to the CSTO. Under such circumstances, geopolitical rebalancing in the context of Central Asia’s security architecture becomes more conceivable. This geopolitical rebalancing, in practice, would entail greater involvement of other actors, namely China, Turkey, Iran, and the United States in shaping the security architecture of the region.
For instance, China already has substantial economic influence in the region and that can translate into far greater geopolitical influence in the long term. The upcoming China-Central Asia summit in May presents yet another new format for relations between the states of Central Asia and China that is worth studying. At the same time, China’s role in the region should not be overstated since its growing influence is more often than not viewed with suspicion, especially on the grassroots levels.
Other powers have been growing their security relationships in the region, too. Turkey and Iran have exported drones (and possibly other arms) to Central Asian countries, in particular, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; while Astana has managed to seal a deal with the Turkish aerospace and defense company to produce Turkish drones in Kazakhstan. The Central Asian states are likely to continue to engage the U.S. to achieve more equilibrium in their relationships with China and Russia. Other actors may gradually have a more decisive role to play in shaping the security architecture of Central Asia if the CSTO framework begins to deteriorate.
However, treating the whole of Central Asia as mere subjects of great power politics may not always be necessarily fruitful. How much agency we should expect from the Central Asian states is hard to say, but the states of Central Asia engage other powers based on their own, individual, interests. In this respect, some could allude to the reorientation of the region’s security toward more intra-regional cooperation. Such discussion, nevertheless, may not resonate with the current geopolitical realities in the region due to mutual distrust (especially in the case of Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan and their sporadic border clashes) and lack of common vision toward security, mainly, against the backdrop of threats arising from the presence of extremist groups in Afghanistan.