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CSTO shows its true colours

To quell the January uprisings in Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enlisted the help of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The military alliance is cautious by nature, but reacted in this instance as troops were mobilised within hours to aid Tokayev’s government. The Kazakh case may set a precedent and could usher in a new life for the CSTO.

April 6, 2022 - Gijs Willem Freriks - Articles and Commentary

The President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during the May 1st celebrations in 2019. Photo: Vladimir Tretyakov / Shutterstock

Massive protests broke out in Kazakhstan in early January 2022. Rising LPG prices became the spark to the tinder for the people who have long been dissatisfied with the current (economic) situation, as well as the three-decade rule of the same ruling class, represented by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev since 2019. The president referred to the events as follows: ‘It is actually no longer a threat. It is an undermining of the integrity of the state and, most importantly, it is an attack on our citizens, who are asking me as head of state to help them immediately.’

While calling the protesters foreign-trained “bandits and terrorists,” Tokayev appealed to the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) on January 5, presumably because he had little faith in the loyalty of his security forces. Experts and policy analysts doubted whether the CSTO would grant Tokayev’s request. After all, the CSTO has never approved a request for intervention and is, therefore, more or less seen as a toothless alliance.

However, after several telephone conversations, including with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Tokayev got his way. ‘Within a few hours, the first planes flew to Kazakhstan. Everything was done quickly and decisively, without hesitation,’ Lukashenko explained. For a “limited period,” fully 250 units of military machinery were flown into Kazakhstan with the roughly 2,500 CSTO troops, whose duties included protecting strategic facilities, such as key government buildings, airports, and military warehouses. After the situation was “stabilised” and “normalised,” the CSTO began its withdrawal on January 13th, which was completed on January 19th. ‘We have completed our task’, Putin claimed.

The CSTO was invoked based on Article 4, which states that an act of aggression (an armed attack that threatens security, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty) against one member state will be considered as a collective act of aggression on all member states of the CSTO. Many analyses claim that Tokayev deliberately spoke of foreign involvement in the crisis because this would allow the CSTO to activate the mutual defence clause. Yet, a careful reading reveals that Article 4 does not comment on the source of the aggression. Therefore, it does not matter whether a threat to a member state originates internally or externally. However, emphasising foreign threats may be intended to lend greater legitimacy to invoking the CSTO and activating Article 4.

The pressing question is, why did the CSTO act in Kazakhstan, yet remain sidelined in, for example, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia? In 2010, Kyrgyzstan requested CSTO assistance during ethnic conflicts, but the organization refused to intervene. Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that it was a purely domestic matter: ‘The criteria for using CSTO forces are violations by a state or non-state entity of a CSTO member state’s borders. In other words, an attempt to seize power from the outside.’ That it must necessarily be an external attack on a CSTO member was Medvedev’s interpretation of the statutes. Medvedev also attributed the tensions in Kyrgyzstan to the weakness and unwillingness of the former government to “respond to the needs of the people”, while Kazakhstan’s request came from a government with, according to Moscow, unquestioned legitimacy. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the Kyrgyz parliament only grudgingly agreed to contribute to the CSTO operation in Kazakhstan.

In 2021, Armenia begged in vain for the CSTO’s help. After all, the fighting was mainly confined to Nagorno-Karabakh, formally considered Azerbaijani territory, so the CSTO was under no obligation to interfere. Moreover, in a conflict between two countries with which Russia has good ties, Moscow logically prefers neutral mediation. As a result, Moscow was happy not to be involved. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan faced heavy criticism domestically when he announced that he would send a military contingent to Kazakhstan, but as temporary chairman of the CSTO Collective Security Council, Pashinyan preferred action to inaction, perhaps because he wants to see the CSTO play a more assertive role in the future. With tensions with Azerbaijan in mind, this is not unreasonable or illogical.

Anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of the CSTO cannot ignore Russian interests. After all, while the CSTO has six members, Moscow remains the dominant factor. The Kremlin considers the CSTO “one of the most important elements of the current security framework in the former Soviet Union.” It is an instrument that not only perpetuates and increases Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space, it also provides a counterweight to NATO and, to a lesser extent, the China-affiliated SCO. For example, Moscow has used its position to encourage Kyrgyzstan to end the US military base in Manas and has blocked a US initiative to establish a network of US-backed anti-drug centres and task forces in Central Asia.

In addition, Moscow considers the CSTO an essential tool for dealing with regional challenges and threats, as stated in the provisions of Russia’s security strategy. These challenges include terrorism and illegal migration. Finally, the CSTO legitimises and justifies Russian soldiers, bases, and military exercises on the territory of member states. Apart from that, the CSTO serves as a forum for Russia to gain international influence and prestige. Indeed, the CSTO enables Moscow to act as the head of an alliance of states in defence of their interests, and in many cases, it is supported by the other CSTO states on important issues, such as criticism of NATO.

These core interests largely explain why Moscow decided to send CSTO troops into Kazakhstan. After all, the operation allowed Moscow to reaffirm its dominant status and further perpetuate, or increase, its influence in the CSTO region. It is too far-fetched to argue that Kazakhstan’s multi-vectorism has been buried and that Tokayev is becoming a “debtor” to Moscow, as political scientist Alexander Morozov claimed, but further integration with Moscow is likely. Furthermore, Moscow has been able to successfully use the CSTO to address ‘challenges and threats’. However, these were not about terrorism (despite Tokayev’s claims) or illegal migration, but about stopping mostly peaceful protests to and prevent a potential colour revolution. “We will not allow so-called colour revolution scenarios to take place,” Putin claimed. The CSTO has proven to be an “antidote,” Lukashenko said.

The CSTO intervention has proved to be a lifeline for the Tokayev government. For the first time, the CSTO was purposefully used to prop up a Moscow-friendly government, whose security and military sector was apparently not good or reliable enough to maintain the status quo on its own. This indicates a departure from the conventional idea of not intervening. Moscow has now tested the potential of the CSTO and possibly set a precedent. If other leaders of CSTO member states face a Kazakh scenario in the future, they too may argue that CSTO intervention is justified.

Kazakh position in Ukraine

In light of this information, it is useful to devote some time to Kazakhstan’s position on the invasion of Ukraine. For example, did the CSTO’s intervention make it impossible for Nur-Sultan to condemn Russia’s actions? Kazakhstan abstained at the UN Security Council but denied a request for its troops to join the offensive in Ukraine, and decided not to recognize the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). In addition, the authorities allowed a large protest in Almaty against the invasion, where one of the speakers called for withdrawal from the CSTO.

Kazakhstan thus did not feel compelled to support Moscow. There is a clear divergence from the Kremlin’s chosen course. At the same time, Kazakhstan’s complex foreign policy dance makes it highly improbable, if not outright impossible, to openly condemn Putin’s actions. Therefore, Tokayev is opting for a relatively neutral stance, as became clear from his statement on March 1st, in which he said: ‘We call on both states to make utmost efforts to pursue a dialogue and work on a peaceful settlement.’

Gijs Willem Freriks is a Dutch journalist with an MA degree in Russian & Eurasian Studies from the European University in St. Petersburg.


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