Lachlan Forster | Europe & Eurasia Fellow
Image: "CSTO Summit 2022 01" by Presidential Executive Office of Russia. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.
President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch an invasion into Ukraine in February 2022 has placed significant attention on the international relations of Russia. Whilst the nation’s diplomatic ties with major superpowers, like the BRICS countries, have a significant impact on the decisions President Putin makes, Central Asia remains a key region for Russian strategic and political considerations.
The significance of the region is highlighted through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a multinational military alliance consisting of six member states: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Although the organisation seems strong on paper, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked tension among the Treaty’s signatories.
As Putin’s war in Ukraine approaches its second anniversary, declining enthusiasm from CSTO members has weakened Russia’s standing within Central Asia, a region it has traditionally dominated. As contentious Russian military decisions erode confidence in the CSTO, growing interest from other international actors highlights the potential for a new security order to emerge within Central Asia.
The CSTO’s Provisions
The CSTO itself is a crucial Russian foreign policy tool within Central Asia. Written in 1992, the Treaty ensured that Russia remained the primary military power within the region following the collapse of the USSR.
The Treaty establishes its provisions on the basis of “friendship, mutual respect and understanding”. The most important section of the Treaty is Article 4, which establishes that an external attack against one signatory “will be considered by the Member States as aggression to all”, similar to NATO’s Article 5. However, the terms of this article remain subservient to Russia’s own political interests. Attempts from Armenia to activate the provision in response to military aggression from Azerbaijan have failed to achieve any response from the CTSO, primarily due to Russia’s own positive relations with the Azerbaijani government.
In practise, the Treaty signatories have been reluctant to manifest any serious military operations, resulting in accusations of the group being a “paper tiger”. The true power of the CSTO is its potential to foster a united Central Asian front against hypothetical international enemies, namely NATO. Even if member states disagree on what justifies a military response, the Treaty keeps Russia and the Central Asian former Soviet satellite states on the ‘same side’ politically, thus ensuring regional strategic unity. But President Putin’s erratic decisions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine have undermined this goal.
Breakdown in Unity
Responses from the member states of the CSTO to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have differed from the uniform support granted to similar military actions, such as the Russian intervention in Syria since 2015.
Belarus has been the most enthusiastic supporter of Russia’s actions. The nation’s leader President Lukashenko voiced his approval of the invasion but stopped short of putting the armed forces in the line of action. Contrasting this enthusiasm, Kyrgyzstan has remained staunchly neutral, to the point of arresting one of its citizens who had fought for the Russian military as a mercenary. Tajikistan has likewise remained neutral, in an attempt to retain investor confidence, predominantly from China, in its fledgling economy.
Kazakhstan, following growing demands for greater democratic freedoms, has made a notable shift away from its traditional pro-Russian policies. The nation has undertaken efforts to restrict the flow of contentious materials, including microchips and missiles, into Russia, at the request of the West. Furthermore, President Tokayev’s refusal to assist the Russian government during the attempted Wagner Division Coup in June 2023 directly opposed the spirit of the articles which underpin the CSTO.
Armenia has been most outspoken nation in criticising the CSTO and supporting Ukraine. Armenian politicians believe that the CSTO has failed to protect the country against Azerbaijani aggression, and have entertained turning West to seek protection. President Putin’s support for Azerbaijan was designed to pressure Armenia into cooperating with Russia’s vision for the region. Instead, it has alienated the nation from Russia and the CSTO.
The Future of CSTO
The CSTO is a product of the immediate post-Soviet regional order, drafted at a time when globalised cooperation and survival outside of Russian reliance was unrealistic for the nations of Central Asia. However, Putin’s controversial campaign in Ukraine has encouraged the organisation’s members to turn away from blind Russian support.
The CSTO signatories now have the luxury of choice for development and military partnerships, something that was previously restricted by Russia’s monopoly across the region. Armenia’s increasing Westward turn towards US military cooperation and potential EU membership, Kazakhstan’s non-preferential multivector foreign policy and the presence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative demonstrate that Russia is no longer the sole active superpower in the region.
If Armenia were to shift its foreign policy to align completely with interested Western nations, Putin would face a humiliating strategic defeat. Further, China rising economic presence within Central Asia, whilst not disastrous for Russia, it would certainly see them demoted within the policy considerations of countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Russia will not lose all relevance within Central Asia in the near future. Nevertheless, the stalemate within Ukraine has pushed CSTO members to reevaluate their commitment to a Treaty that hitches their security to a weakened superpower. Should Putin continue to ignore Central Asia in his quest to conquer Ukraine, the region will likely abandon the articles of the CSTO in favour of lucrative partnerships with strategic competitors that will degrade his country’s standing even further.
Lachlan Forster is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
A student of international Relations and History at the University of Melbourne, Lachlan is currently in Malaysia on a 2023 New Colombo Plan Scholarship. He is a contributing writer with the Young Diplomats Society and Asia in Review, and has also been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Undergraduate Journal of History, and Farrago.