Russia Launches War Games

Russia and Central Asian nations launch a major set of war games. But are they aimed at internal or external threats?

This week has seen the launch of a major set of war games led by Russia and performed under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a motley crew of former Soviet Republics that are united in a common defence alliance.

All of the former Soviet Central Asian republics are permanent members of the CSTO with the exception of Turkmenistan. And, while the importance and priorities of the CSTO ebbs and flows with Russia’s geopolitical mood, this year, the alliance is focused on shoring up its base in Central Asia.

The exercises currently taking place, called Center-2011, are being hosted in southern Russia and throughout Central Asia, and are slated to finish on September 26. Russian officials claim that there will be more than 10,000 troops and 70 combat aircraft taking part in the games. While the CSTO games officially have the objective of promoting defence ties and enhancing the alliance’s credibility, it’s clear that this year’s exercises are framed by concerns that the region is vulnerable to the tide of change coming from the Middle East and North Africa.

Central Asia is blessed with natural resources but cursed by the tight-fisted rule of kleptocratic leaders. Moscow has become increasingly worried that some these regimes may be susceptible to protests, riots or worse. The Chief of General Staff of the Russian army recently affirmed this noting that the still-evolving Arab Spring was ‘difficult to forecast’ and warned that the Kremlin has ‘similar questions for the Central Asian countries.’

One of the key components of the CSTO is the Collective Rapid Reaction Force, which is designed to swiftly mobilize in the event one of the Treaty’s members being attacked by an external actor. But the definition of ‘external threat’ is being intentionally blurred as most of the governments in the region face more existential threats from internal unrest than from foreign powers.

While this has always been tacitly acknowledged by the CSTO, it’s now being fully incorporated into the alliance’s doctrine. Last month, CSTO head Nikolai Bordyuzha remarked that ‘events in North Africa have opened our eyes’ and stressed that it’s time for the Organization to introduce ‘appropriate methods to protect each state.’

The recent change in trajectory of the CSTO calls in to question the alliance’s original mandate. It seems that the member states are more content on extending an ambiguous blanket of ‘security and stability’ over the CSTO in order to preserve decaying regimes.