Analysis & Opinions - International Relations and Security Network

Russian-led Alliance Risks Losing Credibility

| July 3, 2010

Moscow moved to integrate former Soviet republics into a collective security alliance less than half a year after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In May 1992, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed the Collective Security Treaty in Tashkent. Three more republics subsequently joined the treaty, which came into force in 1995.

Several signatories chose not to extend their participation when the five-year treaty was prolonged in 1999, but all of the original signatories plus Belarus are currently participating in what has become the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation).

Until recently, it seemed that the CSTO was developing dynamically into a full-fledged alliance. The organization has added a rapid reaction force and has been conducting regular exercises. It may still be considered a viable alliance when it comes to defending its members against external military threats as stipulated by the organization's founding treaty, which was drafted two decades ago.

However, the recent chaos in Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated that the CSTO falters when it comes to dealing with internal threats, which have become more real and imminent to Central Asian members of the alliance than the threat of military aggression.

First, then-president of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev appealed fruitlessly to CSTO fellow members for assistance in stemming violent protests, which gripped the impoverished Central Asian republic this past spring and eventually forced him to flee just like his predecessor Askar Akayev five years before. 

Then, the interim government of Roza Otunbayeva - that unseated Bakiyev - appealed to Moscow and the CSTO again when ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks broke out in the city of Osh in June. Some 2,000 people lost their lives in these clashes, according to the estimates of the interim government.

Some Kremlinologists were quick to interpret Moscow's refusal to heed Bakiyev's plea as part of the Kremlin plot to unseat the man who had failed to deliver on his alleged promise to evict the Americans from the Manas air base. However, even conspiracy theorists were at a loss when time came to determine whether there had been any hidden reason why CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha said the organization would not heed a request for peacekeepers by those who unseated Bakiyev.

One explanation is that the Collective Security Treaty is explicit only when requiring joint response to an external aggression, and it only vaguely calls for consultations on joint response in case of other threats "to the security, territorial integrity or sovereignty" of its signatories. 

However, this has not stopped CSTO members in the past from repeatedly gaming out joint responses to threats that cannot be defined as military aggression, such as terrorism.  

Moscow's reluctance to intervene in Kyrgyzstan through the CSTO could be easily explained.  Russia's intervention would have increased its costs of preserving influence in Central Asia without bringing any short-term benefits. Also the CSTO's involvement in the ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks may have been opposed by neighboring Uzbekistan, which is also a member of the alliance. 

Still, Russia's decision not to help Kyrgyzstan's fledgling authorities also comes at a long-term cost.

This failure to intervene has also taught a number of important lessons to Russia's CSTO partners. One of them is that CSTO membership is of little or perhaps no use when it comes to dealing with internal security threats, which are much more real than the danger of military aggression by a neighboring state. The CSTO may decide not to come to the rescue even for a pro-Russian regime facing an internal threat that has the potential of causing an implosion of the nation state and its transformation into a failed state.

Russia needs to lead the development of real CSTO procedure and capacity for humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping operations to deal with the dangerous internal threats that its Central Asian members face. Such operations would of course have to a clear mandate from the international community. If Moscow does not develop such a capacity, then it will see the credibility of its collective security project plummet. 

Such a decline would be somewhat paradoxical, given the recent overtures towards this alliance by NATO and the US, which the previous administration of George W Bush refused to view as a potential partner. And it would also, of course, give more food for thought to Central Asian governments as to whether to diversify the security component of their foreign policy at a time when such players as China are vying to solidify their positions in the energy-rich region.

Simon Saradzhyan is a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School Belfer Center where he researches terrorism and arms control.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saradzhyan, Simon.“Russian-led Alliance Risks Losing Credibility.” International Relations and Security Network, July 3, 2010.

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