The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—has never enjoyed great popularity, either among its six member states or beyond. The issue is not that it costs lot finance for its members, or that it has a specific policy. The reason is far more banal: quite simply, there is little awareness of it.
In the last year, the CSTO has faced so many challenges that discussions of the benefits of the organization have moved beyond narrow expert circles into the broader political discourse in nearly all member states—except Russia. Since these benefits are not always entirely clear, it begs the question of what exactly the CSTO should be doing, and how viable it really is.
The main challenge for the CSTO was the conflict between Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. The organization essentially ignored the conflict between two members, much to the bitter disappointment of the both Kirgiz and Tajik public, which did not accept the CSTO’s legal argument that the fighting was taking place in administrative border, which is officially recognized as Kirgizstan’s territory. That argument was particularly unconvincing for both Kirgizstan and Tajikistan.
It is obvious that a situation in which the CSTO could take real collective defensive action is virtually impossible. Modern warfare consists of border clashes, sabotage, and difficult-to-trace cyber-attacks, while the CSTO charter is based on World War II–style full-scale military invasions.
The citizens of the both states viewed its attitude as nothing short of a betrayal. Of all its members had always pinned the most hope on the CSTO, since the threat of war there is very real. Now polls show that just 7 percent of respondents in member states would count on assistance from the CSTO.
The CSTO’s secretary general, Stanislav Zas, called on both sides to make peace, but it was quite clear that he could do little to help. The CSTO’s charter simply does not allow for the possibility of a war between two of its member states. And all other initiatives that Russia or Kazakhstan, for example, might come up with—to act as an intermediary and platform for negotiations—have nothing to do with their membership of the CSTO.
Moreover, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko failed to appeal to the CSTO in 2020, despite having called opposition protesters a threat to the country’s “stability”—a word featured in the CSTO’s charter. Technically, that could have formed the grounds for the CSTO taking measures, though in practice, of course, the idea of sending troops to put down internal protests in another county was an extremely unappealing prospect.
It cannot be said that the member states have not tried to improve the CSTO’s image, and to translate its principles into actions. In 2017, there was discussion in Russia of the CSTO fighting threats not only on its borders, but further afield too, such as in Syria. Russia asked its allies to send a contingent there, but only Armenia obliged, sending troops to clear mines apparently keen to demonstrate its particular loyalty.
There was also some speculation following Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s election as president of Uzbekistan in 2016 that Tashkent would return to the CSTO, having quit the organization (for the second time) in 2012. But that now looks unlikely too, given how hard it was for CSTO to convince Tashkent to join the Eurasian Economic Union as an observer, and that Uzbekistan does not need external help to guard its border with Afghanistan, or with anything else for which it could rely on the CSTO.
Nevertheless, the CSTO still has the chance to prove itself—if it can demonstrate effective and coordinated work after the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Furthermore, because of the weakness of CSTO military forces and in some cases because of political dysfunction and internal weakness, the other member states of the CSTO are of limited value to Russia as military allies
Finally, CSTO is organizationally weak and insufficiently integrated to serve as a capability multiplier for its members in the way that NATO does for the United States and its European allies. Even Belarus, the strongest of these states in terms of the armed forces, is primarily valuable for its geographic location between Russia and NATO territory, rather than because of its armed forces. This means that Russia is more alone now than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War or Russian Empire during the First World War.