Three years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron described Nato as “brain dead”. Today the 30-nation alliance looks more alive than at any time since the end of the Cold War, and in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine even those of us who cautioned against Nato expanding to Russia’s borders can understand Finland and Sweden wanting to join. There is another alliance, sometimes called “Russia’s Nato” – the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – that receives less attention, but which nonetheless has had an equally dramatic turn in its fortunes over the past year. In the case of the CSTO, however, it has gone from making the most successful intervention in its 30-year history to being in such a state of disarray and ineffectiveness that some are asking if it is “living its last days”.
Originally formed in 1992, various post-Soviet states joined and left over the years, but the core and current membership consists of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The CSTO holds annual military exercises and, similar to Nato’s Article 5, the group considers an attack on any member to be an attack on all. Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty states: “In the event of an act of aggression against any of the participating states, all other participating states will provide him with the necessary assistance, including military.”
In January, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a state of emergency in Kazakhstan after riots turned deadly and he called for the CSTO’s assistance to restore order. Some 2,500 soldiers were swiftly deployed – the first time the organisation’s forces had actively intervened in a conflict zone – and left less than two weeks later, job done. The CSTO had been tested, and proved effective.
Fast forward to September, and fighting on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border left at least 99 people dead – the deadliest incident since the 2020 war between the two countries over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenian Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who happens to be the CSTO’s current chairman, called for military aid and formally invoked the treaty’s Article 4. All he got was a fact-finding mission led by the CSTO’s Chief of Staff, Col Gen Anatoly Sidorov, who offered no troops, saying instead that “political and diplomatic methods should solve this problem”. Public opinion was outraged, with calls for Armenia to withdraw from the group. The speaker of the country’s parliament, Alen Simonyan, lamented that the alliance was a “gun that does not shoot”. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Armen Grigoryan, the secretary of Armenia’s security council, concluded: “There is no more hope for CSTO.”
It is not just Armenians who are unhappy. On Sunday, Kyrgyzstan called off the CSTO’s “Indestructible Brotherhood-2022” military exercises that were due to be held on its territory this week. No reason was given, but it was not hard to guess. Last month, a border conflict with Tajikistan led to around 100 deaths and more than 140,000 people fleeing their homes, according to Kyrgyz officials. Why didn’t the Russian-led alliance intervene? They “did nothing at all", Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov told a New York Times reporter. “Of course, they are distracted by Ukraine.”
Mr Japarov was referring to Russia specifically. Because the CSTO itself, said a spokesman for Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry earlier this month, may be Russian-led – but it wants no part in the war in Ukraine. He went on to say that his country favoured territorial integrity, sovereign equality and peaceful co-existence of states within the framework of international law and the principles of the UN. Mr Tokayev made exactly the same points at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. While sharing a stage with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said he would not recognise the Ukrainian separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – which recently supposedly voted to be incorporated into Russia – as independent states.
I saw Mr Tokayev being asked about this bold statement of independence in Mr Putin’s hometown at a conference a few weeks later. He was diplomatic, but his humorous demeanour could not conceal that he was clearly attempting to carve out a different role for his country. Only last week, Kazakh authorities responded to official Russian “outrage” that they had not expelled the current Ukrainian ambassador at Moscow’s insistence by saying that it was “discordant with the nature of the allied relations between Kazakhstan and Russia as equal strategic partners”. That is a very different kind of relationship than the one that existed in January, when Mr Tokayev needed to be supported by Moscow.
Kazakhstan has a significant ethnic Russian minority in the north. But Mr Tokayev will be feeling more confident about warding off any potential attempt to “reunite” them with Mother Russia after Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, on a visit to the country, that “however the international situation changes, going forward we will also resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defence of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity". A few days later, Mr Xi made a similar promise in Kyrgyzstan.
Leave aside the question of whether the “no limits” friendship between China and Russia might involve a change in the patterns of security guarantees in the Eurasian landmass. What is clear is that the CSTO is faltering, and badly. The alliance is not with Russia in Ukraine, in Armenia it failed the crucial test of such an organisation when the invoking of Article 4 brought no military response, and it cannot even keep the peace between its own members.
As one Kyrgyz commentator tweeted last month: “The CSTO is living its last days.” Of its six members, “four are at war, two of them with each other.” That may not quite be an epitaph – but it’s close.