Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) highlights the growing influence of this often overlooked Moscow-led military alliance in Eurasia. But it also underscores the limited ability of Russia to dominate the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Even more, it indicates how the typical “great game competition” framework for analyzing great power competition in the region is misleading.
CSTO has served as a key element of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to strengthen Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) originally represented the most important institution among the former Soviet republics, except for the Baltic republics, which broke completely with Moscow. Over time, the CIS steadily lost influence, due primarily to the diverging agendas pursued by its twelve member governments. A frustrated Russian government under Putin decided instead to focus on enhancing cooperation among a core group of pro-Russian governments, especially Belarus, Armenia, and the Moscow-friendly Central Asian states.
Putin orchestrated the formation of CSTO in 2002. Since formally beginning operations in 2003, CSTO has gradually been strengthening its defense capabilities and expanding its mandate for multinational military operations against diverse threats.
The originally declared focus of CSTO was to counter external military aggression against member countries, but its member governments have since been authorizing its use for a wider range of possible missions. The body now has programs to combat terrorism, counter extremism on the internet, reduce illegal immigration, and curb narcotics trafficking and other transnational organized crime. Its members also pledge to coordinate their foreign and defense policies, including not accepting foreign military bases with the approval of all other members. They issue joint statements on various international security issues such as missile defense, Iran, and Syria. These almost always support Moscow.
In addition to its original regional groups of forces to provide for the collective defense of its members from external aggression, CSTO has also been developing a joint peacekeeping force and rapid reaction forces consisting mostly of elite military units to help counter terrorism, support the CSTO’s new missions of mediating conflicts among its members, and, thanks to changes in the CSTO Charter since the 2010 upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, when the CSTO and other regional institutions failed to intervene to prevent mass violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks, prevent social upheavals in member countries.
The new 20,000-strong Collective Rapid Reaction Force (Kollektivnye Sil Operativnogo Reagirovaniya –KSOR) created in 2009, prepares to fight low-intensity conflicts throughout CSTO, including peacekeeping, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, managing natural and manmade emergencies, and fighting narcotics trafficking and other organized crime. CSTO also has an older 4,500-man Collective Rapid Deployment Force (Kollektivnyye Sily Bistrogo Razvertyvaniya –KSBR), established for the exclusive purposes of fighting terrorists in Central Asia.
Putin’s plan to enhance the CSTO has enjoyed favorable environmental conditions. Many of its member governments fear that the Arab Spring will spread north and threaten their own rule. NATO’s declining presence in Afghanistan is leading Central Asian states to rely more on Moscow for their security.
That said, Russian policy makers have also been exploiting these regional worries to enhance their influence in Eurasia through CSTO and other means. Russian policy makers have been trying for years to strengthen CSTO and the other security, economic, and political institutions connecting the former Soviet republics. In the past, they encountered considerable resistance from other member governments, which were not eager to compromise their post-Soviet autonomy. But the recent upheavals in the Arab states have alarmed its members sufficiently to accept such major changes as allowing CSTO forces to intervene to suppress large-scale uprisings as well as permit CSTO governments to authorize such deployments even in the absence of a consensus of its members.
Although Uzbekistan joined the CSTO in 2006, Tashkent has fought a rearguard action against Putin’s efforts to strengthen the organization. Uzbek officials consider CSTO as Moscow’s stalking horse in Central Asia. Wary of giving Moscow additional means to intervene in conflicts within the former Soviet republics, the Uzbek government also resisted proposals to use CSTO units for “peacekeeping” operations in conflicts between member states. Uzbek officials objected to the vast range of missions tasked to the Russian-dominated KSOR. But the rapid progress made by Russia and Kazakhstan in developing KSOR in 2010 and 2011 alarmed Taskhent, as did Russian efforts to establish a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In late June, Uzbekistan formally exercised its right to end its CSTO membership without delay. The withdrawal notice Uzbekistan submitted to the CSTO secretariat cited Tashkent’s interest in pursuing an independent bipartisan policy regarding Afghanistan, discontent with the organization’s plans to expand its capabilities and missions, and the CSTO’s failures to address Uzbekistan’s previously stated concerns regarding these matters.