By RFE RL
By Chris Rickleton*
(RFE/RL) — The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) started the year with a spring in its step.
The six-nation, Moscow-led security bloc’s deployment of troops under Russian command to Kazakhstan helped quell unprecedented political unrest in which more than 200 people were killed.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev requested the January intervention to counter what he controversially described as coup attempt backed by “foreign terrorists.”
It marked the first time in the CSTO’s history that the bloc had exercised its collective defense mechanism and fueled speculation about how — and where — the alliance might intervene next.
Less than a year later though, and against the background of Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, the bloc once promoted as the Eurasian answer to NATO is facing one of its toughest moments.
Of the Kremlin’s five partners in the bloc, only Belarus has provided support for Russia’s unprovoked invasion that began on February 24, in a move that triggered a fresh wave of Western sanctions against Minsk.
Meanwhile, two of the CSTO’s most Russia-dependent members, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, have barely hid their irritation at the bloc’s inaction during deadly border violence with fellow member Tajikistan and former member Azerbaijan, respectively.
Bishkek Balks At Tajikistan Award
The latest blow to the bloc’s cohesion came last week when Kyrgyzstan abruptly canceled CSTO training drills under the title “Indestructible Brotherhood” that were due to take place in its territory from October 10 to 14.
The decision followed Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s surprise no-show at a gathering of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in St. Petersburg on the day of President Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday, with Japarov congratulating the Kremlin chief by telephone instead.
Addressing the cancellation of the exercises in an interview with Russian media, hawkish Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin accused Kyrgyzstan of indulging in a “game” and wishing “not to fall under any spread of Western sanctions.”
Russia’s neighbors, Zatulin said, were now weighing up their options as they observed “how strong we are and how we will achieve victory in the fight against Ukraine.”
“Since this has not been going well lately, a number of events have been taking place,” observed the lawmaker, who serves as first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s committee for the CIS and has a reputation for lashing out at neighbors over perceived disloyalty toward Moscow.
But Zatulin will have been well aware that Kyrgyzstan’s behavior had little to do with either sanctions or Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine.
Around 100 people were killed in the armed clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last month, with major private news agencies in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, framing Dushanbe’s actions as an “invasion.”
Sections of Kyrgyz social media, meanwhile, suggested Moscow was complicit in the border clashes — a sentiment Japarov criticized harshly at the time.
But Bishkek was quick to react when Tajik President Emomali Rahmon earned a prestigious award from Putin “for provision of regional stability and security” on October 4, the day before Rahmon celebrated his own 70th birthday.
“It is interesting what kind of regional security one can talk about when year to year the actions of the leadership of Tajikistan…undermine peace and harmony between the peoples of the countries of Central Asia,” fumed Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry spokesman Chingiz Kustebaev on Facebook.
Kustebaev also noted Rahmon had earned an award from Putin last year after another bout of deadly border clashes that disproportionately affected the Kyrgyz population.
Aijan Sharshenova, a postdoctoral researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, told RFE/RL that Putin’s most recent award for Rahmon constituted “bad optics” for many Kyrgyz and fueled perceptions that the Kremlin is “playing favorites” in the conflict.
Deputy Prime Minister Edil Baisalov said in turn on October 10 that Kyrgyz public opinion would not accept military exercises with Tajik troops on Kyrgyz soil, in the first explanation of the cancellation by a Kyrgyz official.
Still, Bishkek’s membership in the CSTO was “absolutely indestructible,” Baisalov pledged, in an apparent reference to the name of the canceled exercises.
Sense Of Threat For Kazakhstan
The CSTO has its roots in the Collective Security Treaty (CST) of the early 1990s, which included Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan, as well as the bloc’s current six members. But none of that trio was a member when the CST became the CSTO in 2002.
Uzbekistan, home to Central Asia’s largest standing army, rejoined the group in 2005 but quit again seven years later. Only last week, Tashkent said it had no intention to revisit membership.
Speculation that the bloc might soon shed members has focused largely on Armenia and Kazakhstan.
Despite benefiting from a CSTO military intervention in January, Astana has watched events in Ukraine with particular alarm.
The sense of threat for a country that shares a 7,644-kilometer border with Moscow has only been heightened by a chorus of threats from Russian politicians including Zatulin who have not hidden their anger at their southern neighbor’s neutral stance in the war.
As Moscow declared a military mobilization last month amid a Kyiv counteroffensive, Astana even held its own defense exercises close to the border with Russia.
But Kazakh officials have confirmed their intention to stay in the bloc, with Defense Minister Ruslan Zhaksylykov denying there was a CSTO “crisis” in comments to journalists on October 12.
Putin was expected in the Kazakh capital on October 13 for a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings — his first foreign trip since Moscow bombarded civilian targets in cities across Ukraine in apparent retaliation for an October 8 attack on the bridge over the Kerch Straight that links Russia to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Armenia Losing The CSTO Or CSTO Losing Armenia?
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has perhaps the most cause to be disillusioned with the CSTO.
Yerevan last month invoked Article 4 of the bloc’s treaty — which governs collective defense — during fierce clashes with Azerbaijan. It was the deadliest fighting between the two Caucasus neighbors since the end of a 2020 war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
That war lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire, which resulted in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.
The clashes on September 13-14 and September 28 killed more than 200 soldiers in total from both sides, and saw cities in Armenia proper — rather than only disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — face heavy shelling.
But Armenia’s request for help fell on deaf ears. The CSTO’s response was limited to sending a fact-finding mission to the region, with the bloc effectively ruling out sending troops.
After the second bout of fighting in late September, Pashinian acknowledged he was fielding questions from some in the bloc about whether Armenia — under pressure from an angry public — might consider leaving the alliance.
“I said the opposite: that there are fears the CSTO will withdraw from Armenia,” Pashinian said in an interview with Armenian public television on September 30.
Leonid Nersisyan, an Armenian security analyst, told RFE/RL that Yerevan is unlikely to quit Moscow’s security umbrella without “a real alternative for balancing out the negative consequences of that decision.”
Such consequences, he said, would include the threat of “full-scale invasion” by an emboldened Azerbaijan and its staunch ally Turkey, for whom Armenia’s CSTO membership is still a deterrent, as well as the very real prospect of retribution from Russia.
“Russia is not providing help to Armenia,” Nersisyan told RFE/RL. “But it can still do a lot of harm if Yerevan leaves the CSTO.”
- Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.