Russian security alliance haunted by Soviet ghosts
MOSCOW –The Russia-dominated security alliance, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), disclosed a long-term vision of the grouping’s development. However, post-Soviet conflicts still top the organization’s agenda despite the CSTO’s pledges to play a larger global role.
The heads of states of the CSTO gathered in Armenia’s capital Yerevan to confirm the grouping’s long-term vision of security issues. The summit approved its development blueprint till 2025, including a collective security strategy, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said on October 14.
In a joint statement, they voiced concerns about a possible infiltration of Islamic State militants from Afghanistan into Central Asian states.
The CSTO, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, is aimed to jointly counter security threats. On October 14, the CSTO also decided to set up the grouping’s crisis response center, and filed a joint list of militant groups seen as terrorists by the member-states.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev refrained from attending the summit in Armenia, citing health issues. Media outlets in neighboring Azerbaijan described it as “Armenian flu,” implying that Nazarbayev was reluctant to be seen as siding with Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan left the CSTO back in 1999. In April 2016, there were signs of the renewed conflict in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, that started in late 1980s. In 1991, the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) was proclaimed. However, Azerbaijan does not recognize the NKR and considers the region to be its occupied territories. Azerbaijan’s authorities apparently hope that the CSTO collective security arrangement can only protect Armenia within its internationally recognized borders, but not the NKR.
The Kremlin attempted shuttle diplomacy, aimed at defusing the conflict. Meanwhile, Russian officials also pledged to continue arms sales to both sides of the conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Russia maintains strong security links with Armenia. It has a military base in Armenia till 2020, and the 1997 friendship treaty provides for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either country.
On October 14, Armenian President Sargsyan argued that the summit in Yerevan voiced support of the peaceful Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. However, ahead of the summit, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there would be no joint CSTO statement on Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani media outlets described Peskov’s words as Armenia’s diplomatic failure.
Putin attended the CSTO top-level meeting ahead of his trip to India to attend BRICS summit. Incidentally, the CSTO summit coincided with the first visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Azerbaijan from October 13 to 15.
Apart from Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the situation in Central Asia came as another matter of the CSTO’s concern. President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon told the summit in Armenia that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, thus threatening Tajik-Afghan border or the Southern frontier of the CSTO.
The CSTO has been mulling a specific plan to counter threats to member-states from the territory of Afghanistan since 2011. The CSTO has repeatedly pledged increased assistance to Tajikistan aimed to fortify the country’s border with Afghanistan. These plans and pledges were backed up by regular shows of military force.
Earlier this month, CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Collective Force (KSOR) conducted exercises in Kyrgyzstan aimed to counter security threats from Afghanistan. The drill’s scenario involved land operations and air strikes against the incursion from Afghanistan. Russia’s Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire supersonic long-range strategic bombers took part in the drill.
The CSTO has been mulling a larger global role, including possible membership of states other than the former Soviet nations. In 2012-2015, India, Iran and Egypt held talks with the CSTO on observer status and possible membership.
At the summit in Armenia, Belarus assumed the rotating presidency of the CSTO. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko told the summit that the grouping should not await recognition by the West. “We should act in a way so as to force NATO to recognize our organization,” Lukashenko said. However, there were no clarifications on what actions were supposed to force NATO’s recognition of the CSTO.
Yet despite pledges to play a larger international role, the CSTO apparently was still focused on post-Soviet issues. It remains a matter of debate whether the CSTO could force, or convince, the West to treat the organization as an equal partner.