.
W

hile the rest of the world cautiously watched mass protests and unrest explode across Kazakhstan in early January, Russia utilized Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) peacekeeping forces to rescue the friendly and beleaguered Kazakhstani regime.This portends a more active role for the organization as an instrument of Russian power in Eurasia. The CSTO’s January 6th decision to dispatch a peacekeeping mission to Kazakhstan with participation from every member state of the alliance represents a significant inflection point in the history of the organization, one which will undoubtedly shape its role in future flashpoints in the former Soviet Union. 

The CSTO has to this point had a very minimal impact on events in the former Soviet Union for most of its history. Today’s configuration of the CSTO came to be in 2002 with the upgrade of the 1992 Collective Security Treaty into a full international organization, as opposed to the treaty’s previous purpose of promoting cohesion among former Soviet militaries. The organization is structured as a military alliance focused on collective defense, and counts Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as members. 

The January 6th decision to intervene required Russia’s blessing, as Moscow provided the lion’s share of the troops sent to Kazakhstan. Moving forward, Russia will have to decide what purpose it wants the CSTO to fulfil. Will it take on a new institutional purpose as the defender of Russia-friendly member regimes under pressure, acting as a regional police force? Or will the Kremlin prefer a return to the CSTO’s original purpose as a collective defense mechanism against truly external threats. 

CSTO members have often become embroiled in incidents of regional or internal instability in the past few decades, but for most of its existence the organization avoided an active role in such conflicts. As noted by Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov, when the CSTO  accepted Kazakhstani President Tokayev’s description of the protest movement as “terrorist bands” with external support by intervening, it signaled a shift in what can be construed as a threat to the sovereignty of member states. Lukyanov adds that this effectively broadens the scope of CSTO intervention, as embattled regimes such as Tokayev’s can label domestic protests as an external threat and get support from CSTO troops.

This stands in stark contrast to the Russian and CSTO reactions to previous requests for assistance, such as that from Kyrgyzstan during its 2010 wave of unrest in the city of Osh. After ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan began to spin out of the Kyrgyzstani government’s control, Bishkek’s request for CSTO peacekeeper assistance was met with a flat rejection from then-President Dmitry Medvedev, who said that the CSTO could not intervene in an internal matter of Kyrgyzstan. Moscow similarly demurred on Armenian requests to trigger CSTO consultations in its Fall 2020 war with Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

The use of CSTO collective defense mechanisms to counter challenges to the authority of governments in Russia’s immediate neighborhood may prove to be a tempting tool in Moscow’s toolbox in future moments of crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s January 10 address to an extraordinary session of the Collective Security Council of the CSTO provides a clue of what differentiates past refusals to take action from the current Russian-led CSTO decision to intervene in Kazakhstan. In this address, President Putin states that the CSTO will not allow so-called “color revolutions” to take place, using a term often used by Moscow to describe supposed Western-backed revolutions to strip countries from its supposed sphere of interest. 

This approach to the CSTO as a collective organization of regime defense may find willing partners in CSTO such as Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko expressed support for strengthening the alliance as a means of insulating member states from supposed “external challenges,” which he claimed manifested themselves in his own country in the massive August 2020 protests against his fraudulent reelection. While Russia-friendly governments from Minsk to Dushanbe will certainly enjoy a sense of peace of mind from knowing that the CSTO can send a contingent to stiffen the resolve of their security forces in the event of unrest, Moscow presumably would benefit from the dependence of friendly regimes on Russian hard power under the new CSTO understanding.  

It is unlikely that the CSTO will be allowed to return to its previous de facto role as a means to foster cooperation between the Russian military and the militaries of its allies. With the United States effectively absent from much of Eurasia following its 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will become much easier for the governments of Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to lean into their relationship with Russia without having to balance their relationships with the United States. As the post-Soviet history of Eurasia has frequently demonstrated (most recently in Kazakhstan), popular protests and unrest can spring up rapidly against many of the rigid authoritarian regimes in the region. What will differentiate past episodes from future flashpoints is the willingness of the Kremlin to employ the CSTO to preserve beleaguered friendly regimes.

About
Wesley Culp
:
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Russia Leveraging CSTO to Bolster Influence in Eurasia

Map via Adobe Stock.

January 15, 2022

The Russia-led intervention in Kazakhstan in response to protests against the Russia-friendly Kazakhstani regime signals a change in how CSTO peacekeeping forces are likely to be used in the future, writes Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress Research Fellow Wesley Culp.

W

hile the rest of the world cautiously watched mass protests and unrest explode across Kazakhstan in early January, Russia utilized Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) peacekeeping forces to rescue the friendly and beleaguered Kazakhstani regime.This portends a more active role for the organization as an instrument of Russian power in Eurasia. The CSTO’s January 6th decision to dispatch a peacekeeping mission to Kazakhstan with participation from every member state of the alliance represents a significant inflection point in the history of the organization, one which will undoubtedly shape its role in future flashpoints in the former Soviet Union. 

The CSTO has to this point had a very minimal impact on events in the former Soviet Union for most of its history. Today’s configuration of the CSTO came to be in 2002 with the upgrade of the 1992 Collective Security Treaty into a full international organization, as opposed to the treaty’s previous purpose of promoting cohesion among former Soviet militaries. The organization is structured as a military alliance focused on collective defense, and counts Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as members. 

The January 6th decision to intervene required Russia’s blessing, as Moscow provided the lion’s share of the troops sent to Kazakhstan. Moving forward, Russia will have to decide what purpose it wants the CSTO to fulfil. Will it take on a new institutional purpose as the defender of Russia-friendly member regimes under pressure, acting as a regional police force? Or will the Kremlin prefer a return to the CSTO’s original purpose as a collective defense mechanism against truly external threats. 

CSTO members have often become embroiled in incidents of regional or internal instability in the past few decades, but for most of its existence the organization avoided an active role in such conflicts. As noted by Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov, when the CSTO  accepted Kazakhstani President Tokayev’s description of the protest movement as “terrorist bands” with external support by intervening, it signaled a shift in what can be construed as a threat to the sovereignty of member states. Lukyanov adds that this effectively broadens the scope of CSTO intervention, as embattled regimes such as Tokayev’s can label domestic protests as an external threat and get support from CSTO troops.

This stands in stark contrast to the Russian and CSTO reactions to previous requests for assistance, such as that from Kyrgyzstan during its 2010 wave of unrest in the city of Osh. After ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan began to spin out of the Kyrgyzstani government’s control, Bishkek’s request for CSTO peacekeeper assistance was met with a flat rejection from then-President Dmitry Medvedev, who said that the CSTO could not intervene in an internal matter of Kyrgyzstan. Moscow similarly demurred on Armenian requests to trigger CSTO consultations in its Fall 2020 war with Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

The use of CSTO collective defense mechanisms to counter challenges to the authority of governments in Russia’s immediate neighborhood may prove to be a tempting tool in Moscow’s toolbox in future moments of crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s January 10 address to an extraordinary session of the Collective Security Council of the CSTO provides a clue of what differentiates past refusals to take action from the current Russian-led CSTO decision to intervene in Kazakhstan. In this address, President Putin states that the CSTO will not allow so-called “color revolutions” to take place, using a term often used by Moscow to describe supposed Western-backed revolutions to strip countries from its supposed sphere of interest. 

This approach to the CSTO as a collective organization of regime defense may find willing partners in CSTO such as Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko expressed support for strengthening the alliance as a means of insulating member states from supposed “external challenges,” which he claimed manifested themselves in his own country in the massive August 2020 protests against his fraudulent reelection. While Russia-friendly governments from Minsk to Dushanbe will certainly enjoy a sense of peace of mind from knowing that the CSTO can send a contingent to stiffen the resolve of their security forces in the event of unrest, Moscow presumably would benefit from the dependence of friendly regimes on Russian hard power under the new CSTO understanding.  

It is unlikely that the CSTO will be allowed to return to its previous de facto role as a means to foster cooperation between the Russian military and the militaries of its allies. With the United States effectively absent from much of Eurasia following its 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will become much easier for the governments of Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to lean into their relationship with Russia without having to balance their relationships with the United States. As the post-Soviet history of Eurasia has frequently demonstrated (most recently in Kazakhstan), popular protests and unrest can spring up rapidly against many of the rigid authoritarian regimes in the region. What will differentiate past episodes from future flashpoints is the willingness of the Kremlin to employ the CSTO to preserve beleaguered friendly regimes.

About
Wesley Culp
:
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.