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 a lot for its members, or that it has an aggressive expansionist 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 Karabakh war last fall between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The organization essentially ignored the conflict, much to the bitter disappointment of the Armenian public, which did not accept the CSTO’s legal argument that the fighting was taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially recognized as Azerbaijan’s territory. That argument was particularly unconvincing for Armenians when Azerbaijani missiles were landing on the territory of Armenia itself.

Theoretically, this could have triggered Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty upon which the organization was established. Article 4 states that an armed attack threatening the security, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of one of its members will be viewed as an act of aggression against all member states. Citing this article, some Armenian politicians called on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to appeal to the CSTO, but he did not do so.

Pashinyan only made an official request for help to the CSTO in spring 2021, when Azeri troops moved to re-demarcate the border between the two countries and, according to Yerevan, sent up to 1,000 troops to take up positions on Armenian territory, resulting in deadly clashes.

The request for help was declined at a ministerial summit in Dushanbe. The decision to use force to protect a CSTO ally must be made unanimously by the heads of member states, and the annually rotating CSTO chair must first raise the issue. In 2020, the chair was Russia; this year, it is Tajikistan.

It’s 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 Armenian public unsurprisingly viewed its allies’ attitude as nothing short of a betrayal. Of all its members, Armenia 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 would count on assistance from the CSTO.

The second challenge for the CSTO in the past year was the armed border conflict in April between two of its members: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In an extraordinary twist, both the Kyrgyz defense minister and Security Council secretary happened to be in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe when the fighting broke out—to take part in a CSTO Defense Ministers Council meeting, of all things.

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 doesn’t 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.

The third and final crisis was miraculously averted when the contested Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko failed to appeal to the CSTO, 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 can’t 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. Moscow asked its allies to send a contingent there, but only Armenia obliged, sending troops to clear mines—apparently keen to demonstrate its particular loyalty. 

When, during negotiations on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the subject of sending peacekeepers there came up, there was predictably a proposal that they should be from the CSTO. But with the peace talks at a stalemate, that optimistic scenario has been forgotten.

There was also an attempt to create a unified list within the CSTO of terrorist organizations, but this proved impossible for a number of reasons. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, currently both recognize the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as a terrorist organization, in the interests of their partnerships with Turkey. Moscow, on the other hand, has no intention of making any such concessions to Ankara.

As a result, all the CSTO really manages to achieve is military exercises and roundtable discussions of the “military and political situation.” These meetings include discussions of the “biological threat” that the United States is purportedly creating in laboratories across the post-Soviet space, but therein lies another awkward problem: there are laboratories of the kind that concern Moscow in two CSTO member countries: Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Nor is there any chance of breathing new life into the CSTO by expanding it. Several years ago, there was much debate over the possibility of Azerbaijan joining the organization: after all, it also signed the Collective Security Treaty back in 1992. But now it looks like that was just diplomatic maneuvering on Baku’s part with the aim of isolating Yerevan. Following its victory in the second Karabakh war, Azerbaijan is unlikely to want to take on any extra obligations.

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 Moscow to convince Tashkent to join the Eurasian Economic Union as an observer, and that Uzbekistan doesn’t 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. Preparations are already under way, with the CSTO planning to hold three drills in Tajikistan and one in Russia this year. It’s difficult to predict precisely what kind of problems Central Asia will encounter following the pullout of the United States from Afghanistan. But if, with Russia’s help, a coherent strategy can be developed for containing such risks, there would be far fewer doubts over the benefits of the CSTO.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

By:
  • Kirill Krivosheev