While the Ukraine war is diverting Moscow’s attention, Putin’s control over its neighbours in Central Asia and the Caucasus is lessening.
The deployment of troops in Kazakhstan in January put the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) on the map of actively engaged regional military alliances. While setting a precedent, the recent casualties at the borders of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan demonstrate CSTO’s inefficiency in maintaining order.
The regional organisation remains ruled by Russia, focused on preserving its geopolitical interests – pushing some of its members to reconsider their participation and reliance on the CSTO. This could result in a shift of alliances, leaving space for new allegiance opportunities.
If Russia gets defeated in Ukraine it will discredit its authoritative and paternalistic position towards ‘smaller’ states in the region explains expert Ben Dubow. Belarus is the only member that backed Russia’s invasion, as the rest are trying to distance themselves, rebranding as neutral, fearing that the West or Putin might come after them. Sanctions are already making Russia more reliant on its neighbours to bypass trade and investment restrictions. As a result, the whole region is taking advantage of the weakened position of Russia to equilibrate its relationships with Moscow.
The Russian-initiated Collective Security Organisation was created in 1992. It later became in 2002 the CSTO made of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The CSTO pledged to defend all members in exchange for an exclusive military alliance.
After the deployment in Kazakhstan, the Armenian leadership hoped that Russia through the CSTO would be willing to take on a more active role in maintaining and protecting the security of its members. In the past, during the 2020 ‘44 days war’ between Baku and Yerevan, the Armenian PM’s calls for the dispatch of troops were ignored. As ceasefires and breaches are multiplying, the country’s security is now increasingly relying on the presence of Russian peacekeepers at the border.
The heavy shelling on the night of September 12-13 has once again angered the population and calls to withdraw from the CSTO have been voiced across the country. On September 20, a group of CSTO rapporteurs arrived in the Karabakh region to recommend crisis resolutions policies, and Sergey Lavrov assured that Russia was commited to convene a meeting for the dispatch of more permanent observers. However, Armenians are still waiting for more adequate defence from the CSTO. In protest, Yerevan took a rain check for the special forces exercise operation “Interaction-2022” that started on September 26 in Kazakhstan.
Kyrgyzstan also decided to abruptly cancel the military drill “Indestructible Brotherhood” following heavy shelling on its border with Tajikistan on September 18. President Sadyr Zhaparov expressed his discontent with the CSTO at the Summit on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures held in Astana on October 13. He stated that “existing authoritative regional organisations are not effectively using all their tools at their disposal to prevent conflicts from destabilising in the region.”
Other former soviet states are growingly repositioning their foreign policy, such as Kazakhstan which grew diplomatically closer to Beijing, defending China’s internal policies at the UN. Previous Russian statements on the ‘fictitious’ creation of Kazakhstan resonated with the invasion of Ukraine to the point that China warned against an incursion in its ally’s territory.
Yerevan has been trying to find alternative supporters knowing that close economic relations with Baku, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, are limiting Russia’s willingness to act. The European Commission stepped in as a fellow mediator in the negotiations between the belligerents and sent a fact-finding mission on October 13. Moreover, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Yerevan on September 17 demonstrates the Armenian efforts to voice out what they need.
The CSTO is perceived by Russia as a way to exert and maintain dominance on its neighbourhood while keeping foreign powers such as the United States and China away explains analyst Ecaterina Locoman. Russia’s positioning as a fellow victim of Western domination, justifying the need to regroup against foreign powers, will not convince other members that Moscow is their best defence – rather it might push them further East. Tajikistan’s PM Emomali Rahmonh at the Astana conference expressed the growing irritation of Central Asian countries with Moscow’s imperial attitude.
Even if the secretary of Armenia’s security council, Armen Grigoryan, bluntly declared that “there is no more hope for the CSTO,” it is too soon to announce its demise. Due to the members’ high military, financial and political reliance on Moscow, it is very unlikely that they break away from the CSTO. Armenian ex-President Kocharyan recalled that the organisation continues to limit the scope of Baku’s aggression. Yerevan will not leave Moscow’s security umbrella without “a real alternative for balancing out the negative consequences of that decision” declares expert Leonid Nersisyan.
Russia’s growing isolation forces Putin to revise its geopolitical priorities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. His minimum engagement to maintain good relations with all members of the CSTO will push frustrated states to eventually revise their allegiance. The current conflicts will continue obstructing political stability and stir popular discontent. Russia should clear its position and act as a real resolution broker on both border conflicts, making the costs of rejecting peace settlements too high. World geopolitics are shifting East and will continue attracting more foreign interests. New alliances palliating the lack of regional alternatives and offering material gains could arise. If China and the European Union strongly engage and support Russian neighbours, it will ultimately loosen Putin’s grip on the post-soviet region.