The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is being promoted as a key player in the Eurasian region. It is also being endorsed as a contender to NATO as a collective security alliance. A military and political coalition, the CSTO currently includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Its history can be traced back to 1992, when Russia, along with several other Central Asian states, signed the Collective Security Treaty. The treaty was initially signed for a term of five years with the possibility of prolongation. Registered at the United Nations Secretariat in 1995, its rotocol of Prolongation was signed on 2 April 1999, in Moscow. This protocol has paved the way for the treaty to be renewed every five years. The resultant CSTO was officially established in 2003, with the erstwhile signing of its charter in October 2002 in Moldova. It established collective responsibility for the security of member states by meeting threats to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of all individual members. It also set out this collective responsibility in the case of a threat to international peace and security.
Despite this commitment under Article 4 of the charter, the CSTO has generally avoided intervening on behalf of individual members until recently. Lately, the CSTO deployed its troops to Kazakhstan to control the violence in the country, which resulted from political unrest in 2022. While the CSTO has been previously reluctant to provide such help in the face of domestic unrest, this time, the rhetoric of foreign intervention by the Kazakh authorities and CSTO’s own need to establish itself as a key player in the region motivated intervention through a force of under 4000 personnel.
Despite the rhetoric of the CSTO breathing its last, especially following the Ukraine war, it will be difficult for the Central Asian states to fully shake off the influence of the organisation.
The CSTO has also become more active in the conflicts between its members. It has expressed willingness to provide support following a deadly four-day clash between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in September 2022. This clash has not only had devastating impacts on the two warring states but also spells certain danger for the region at large. In addition to exacerbating the general insecurity in the region, it has the potential to choke any plans related to the socioeconomic progress envisioned under the Belt and Road Initiative. Here too, the CSTO has tried to establish itself as a prominent player. However, this has been widely called a symbolic intervention, only serving to convey certain political messages instead of actually resolving the conflict.
Another contested area of influence and interest for the CSTO has been the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Here however, the CSTO’s position has been weakened by the presence of the European Union (EU) and the United States (US), in addition to Armenia’s displeasure with the CSTO. Where both Armenia and Russia accuse each other of taking a partial position on the matter, the former is increasingly voicing discontent. It has been critical of the Russian peacekeeping troops’ inability to prevent the blockade of the Lachin Corridor by Azerbaijan, a move that it claims continues to threaten its national security. Meanwhile, the CSTO has indicated the willingness to take a more proactive position on the conflict. An increased CSTO presence in this area can allow the organisation to reestablish itself in the region and eliminate the possibility of European and American intervention, provided of course, that it can manage the conflict effectively. Retaining its influence in this region is a pressing matter, given Armenia’s recent renunciation of several activities related to the CSTO and its increasing engagement with the West.
Beyond its immediate neighbourhood, the CSTO has also tried to position itself as a key player in handling the crisis in Afghanistan. Here Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all face risks from any spillovers across the borders. Amongst the chief challenges here include hard security, border controls, illicit trafficking and the sharing of water resources from the Amu Darya. A potential water dispute in an already volatile region can lead to a conflict that may well spiral out of control with widespread repercussions.
There also exists deep mistrust between these states. Regional volatility and the several individual interests of the member states all undermine the collective nature of the CSTO. The presence of other actors also complicates the collective security potential of the CSTO. These actors, including the EU, NATO, China and the US to name a few, have significant interests in Central Asia including both energy and security. They have also been actively filling the vacuum left by the CSTO in the case of the Nagorno -Karabakh conflict. Yet despite their swelling presence, this post-Soviet space can be better leveraged by the CSTO and Russia, which considers this place near-abroad. Russia, and thus the CSTO’s role, is also more acceptable in the region given the linguistic, ethnic and cultural interlinkages. The West’s hesitance over admitting Ukraine to NATO and its limited involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war, demonstrates exactly how much leverage powerful outsiders can exercise in the region. The compliance of Belarus in this conflict similarly sends a clear message about the fellow CSTO member’s dependence on Russia. Despite the rhetoric of the CSTO breathing its last, especially following the Ukraine war, it will be difficult for the Central Asian states to fully shake off the influence of the organisation. And while such a feat may be easier for the South Caucuses, at the moment, a Russian-led CSTO may well have more to offer not only to Russia itself but also to the other members.