On May 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened in Moscow the 10th anniversary meeting of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization regarded by many as the “NATO of the East” or the “anti-NATO” for its pro-Russian stance. The session was attended by all heads of member states, including Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov.
In his opening keynote address, Putin lauded the results of the CSTO’s work, its increased influence on the global arena and its role in upholding collective security in the post-Soviet region, urging member states to further enhance coordination. “We have very similar approaches to the basic problems of international and regional security,” he said, adding that the role the CSTO plays in the world “will continue to increase,” while Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the organization has gone “far beyond the limits of a classical defence bloc” in a short period of time, being “capable of reacting to virtually any threats at this stage.”
The CSTO was established in 2002 on the basis of the Collective Security Treaty signed in Tashkent ten years before at the initiative of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, at that time concerned over the possible consequences of the civil war in the neighbouring Tajikistan and the rule of the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose current members include Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan, operates a 3,500-soldier force with a structure resembling that of NATO and whose role is likely to increase under Putin’s new reign.
After the summit, the CSTO members produced a joint declaration within which they expressed their dismay over US plans to build a missile shield in Europe, saying that it could cause “damage to international security.” The leaders of the seven states part of the alliance said that they were prepared to make joint efforts with NATO to oppose the proliferation of ballistic missiles on certain conditions. The provisions of the CSTO – like NATO’s – include a chapter that an attack on one of the organization’s members constitutes an attack on all. This implies that Moscow may use its nuclear umbrella as a means to consolidate its position in Eastern Europe, through Belarus, and the Caucasus, through Armenia.
Minsk feels itself threatened by NATO presence in neighbouring Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and has already manifested its readiness to host Iskander missile systems on its territory as a retaliation to US plans for a missile defence shield in Europe. Internationally isolated, Belarus shares with Russia (and Kazakhstan) the membership to the Customs Union, and intends to become the Western bastion of a powerful Eurasian bloc. For its part, Armenia is constantly facing the threat posed by the Turkish-Georgian-Azeri axis, which is part of a greater game aimed at expanding US geopolitical control over the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea regions, taking them away from Russia. For this reasons, there is perhaps no alliance in the world more natural and strategic than the one between Moscow and Yerevan.
Nevertheless, the country that more than any other one may turn the “NATO of the East” into a powerful means of containment of the Atlantic Alliance is Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan. In a recent interview with Russia’s state-run television Rossiya 24, the Kazakh leader chided the West for trying to influence other countries through mass and new media, echoing positions long held by the Kremlin. After two decades of multi-vector foreign policy, which sought to advance Kazakhstan’s national interests by balancing those of the West, Russia, and China, Nazarbayev is now openly tying his country’s future to Russia.
On military issues, he described NATO’s role in the post-Cold War as “entirely unclear,” lauding instead the anti-terrorism orientation of the CSTO. Nazarbayev’s changed stance on East-West relations might be dictated by both US planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and Western increased criticism of his rule. What is certain is that the Astana-Moscow axis is rapidly becoming the core of a new security architecture for Eurasia, of which the CSTO appears to present itself as the most appropriate tool. The challenge for NATO and its Eastern counterpart is now to avoid that the latest developments may trigger a new arms race between the United States and Russia, seeking instead the way to work together in the pursuit of common goals, in Eurasia as well as worldwide.