Russia’s aggression drives its allies away

| October 10, 2022

Russia is not only losing ground to counter-offensives in Ukraine. Moscow is also facing broader doubts about its commitment to the idea of collective defence among the former Soviet states. Specifically, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ­­­– set up to promise NATO-like security guarantees to its members ­– has been called into question in recent weeks for failing to act in the face of regional tensions.

Armenia, for one, suffered an Azerbaijani military attack on its territory on 13 and 14 September. Then, in the days after, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both CSTO members, also clashed over a disputed border. The CSTO has only sent an investigative mission in response to Armenia’s request to provide immediate military support against Azerbaijan, whereas the two Central Asian members of the organisation were offered phone calls and condolences.

Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty (CST) guarantees the immediate provision of “necessary help, including the military one” by all members when such help is requested by a member under duress. Armenia referred to this article when requested military support to maintain its territorial integrity.

However, the political-diplomatic means should be given a priority, said the Head of the CSTO Joint Staff Colonel-General Anatoly Sidorov. According to him, the CSTO decided to make a maximum effort toward the peaceful solution of the conflict rather than “drawing the sabre of the scabbard,” and that “this pathway looks promising, both here [in the Caucasus] and in the Central Asian region.”

Officials in Russia’s Caucasian and Central Asian allies were not satisfied. The Speaker of the Armenian Parliament Alen Simonian called the CSTO a pistol that failed to shoot. Armen Grigorian, the Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia, accused the CSTO of failing to provide the military support that Armenia requested.

When asked if Armenia is considering leaving the organisation, he said that the CSTO should ponder about it, not Armenia. Kyrgyzstan also questioned the value of the organisation. As the Secretary of Security Council of Kyrgyzstan Marat Imankulov put it, “what is the point in becoming a CSTO member and get a conflict with another member-state instead of the anticipated defence from an external threat?”

The Kyrgyz side, which argues that Tajikistan encroached on its territory, wants to see a mechanism in place that allows expelling an aggressive member-state from the organisation. Previously this proposal has been blocked by Tajikistan multiple times.

But it is also clear that Russia cannot afford to meet these demands of Kyrgyzstan and Armenia for the fear of losing wider influence. Providing full military support to Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan could spell the end of Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh and its role in the Russo-Turkish Joint Monitoring Centre in Azerbaijan, jeopardising the status quo for Russia in the Caucasus to the benefit of Turkey and the European Union (EU).

This explains the rhetoric of Colonel-General Sidorov when he said that the CSTO mission is “trying to be as objective as possible” in investigating the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Similarly, adding an expelling mechanism to the CSTO Charter as per Kyrgyzstan’s request counters the logic of the Russian quest for increasing the “zone of responsibility” of the organisation by including new members. In short, the dissatisfaction of these two members will keep haunting the CSTO because the conflicts they are involved in are ongoing.

The internal feud within the CSTO and a broken collective defence mechanism will not look good on Russia’s “resume” as a security provider of the former Soviet nations. The internal problems of the CSTO are set to be exacerbated following Russia’s annexation of eastern and southern Ukraine and treating Ukraine’s attack on those territories as an attack on Russia.

In such a scenario, Article 4 of the CST requires the other members to provide military support if Russia decides to request it. This will become a heavy toll on the organisation. No CSTO member other than Belarus is ready to condone Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Kazakhstan, for instance, made it clear that it will not recognise the results of the referendums in eastern and southern Ukraine. For other small members as well, the “fear of entrapment” will overcome the “fear of abandonment” – the double “fear factors” that inform the security dilemma in alliance politics.

For Russia, the CSTO’s failure is going to be more than a mere loss of a collective defence institution. The CSTO is an important element of Russia’s geopolitical imaginary and serves as one of the two pillars of the Russian-led regionalisation in post-Soviet Eurasia.

In tandem with the Eurasian Economic Union, the CSTO is Russia’s alternative to the NATO-EU institutions in the West. In a bid that goes beyond a collective defence purpose, the CSTO is committed to the formation of a “fair and stable world order” – a cause that Russia cares for more than any other CSTO member, as evidenced in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine, 2016 Foreign Policy Concept, and 2021 National Security Concept.

So, the demise of the CSTO would undermine Russia’s self-representation as a global power in charge of the Eurasian chapter of an emerging multi-polar world, the Western frontiers of which Russia claims to be defending in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.