Russian officials think the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a bloc of friendly ex-Soviet republics, can develop into a security grouping on par with NATO. But recent CSTO military exercises show that Moscow lacks a clear vision for how to utilize the alliance.
While the CSTO has existed since 2002, it has appeared to gain energy over the past several months. "For a long time, Russia had a very uncertain position with the CSTO: it wanted allies, but it didn't want to have to pay," Yevgeny Buzhinsky, a retired general who until last year headed the Russian Ministry of Defense's International Cooperation Directorate, told EurasiaNet.org.
"When I was in my last position, I tried to convince two ministers of defense and two chiefs of general staff that if you want to have allies, you have to pay, like the Americans do – if they wanted to have allies in Europe, they paid," Buzhinsky continued. "Now it seems to me that the political decision has been taken that Russia is ready to pay. So the plan now is to strengthen the CSTO and make it a real political/military alliance."
But what form that alliance will take remains a very open question. A series of CSTO exercises called Tsentr-2011 wrapped up on September 27 and involved 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tsentr-2011 occurred concurrently with another exercise involving Russia and Belarus, another CSTO member, in which another 12,000 soldiers participated. Last year's exercises, by contrast, involved just 1,700 troops from all the CSTO countries.
The exercises were purportedly aimed at preparing security forces to handle militants infiltrating Central Asia from Afghanistan, and for uprisings, such as have been seen over the past year in the Arab world. (For Russia, which has been deeply distrustful of the "Arab Spring," those two threats are essentially the same.)
"The processes taking place in North Africa and the Middle East were difficult to forecast. What will happen next? What leadership will come to power? This has to be a warning to all states. We have similar questions for the Central Asian countries. We must be prepared for anything. This is why we are practicing with these drills," said Gen. Nikolay Makarov, chief of the general staff of the Russian Army, before the CSTO exercises began. "Russia's military organization must be ready for a worst-case scenario."
Belarussian President Aleksander Lukashenko, whose country currently heads the CSTO, suggested recently that the organization's rapid reaction forces could be used to put down internal rebellions. "The matter is not only the use of the rapid reaction force in the event of interference from states outside [the CSTO], but also interference from other states within the organization," he said. "No one will unleash a war on us, but many are itching to stage a constitutional coup."
Makarov's and Lukashenko's statements have caused many observers to wonder if the Kremlin is looking at the CSTO's rapid reaction force – which will be dominated by Russia, by far the strongest military in the CSTO – as a tool to potentially put down popular uprisings against its authoritarian allies in Central Asia.
Some analysts question Moscow's desire to get involved in Central Asian domestic disputes, citing Russia's reluctance to intervene in the Kyrgyz upheaval during the summer of 2010. "The goal [for Russia] is to strengthen the governments of Central Asia so they can put down an uprising themselves," said Igor Korotchenko, director of the Center for the Analysis of Global Arms Trade, a Moscow think tank affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Referring to Russia's rebuff of Kyrgyz pleas for assistance last summer, Korotchenko said; "If their army can't do it itself, Russia and Belarus won't do it."
"Our guys are afraid to go there – we can't tell an Uzbek from a Kyrgyz," added Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and Central Asia expert. Dubnov argued that rhetoric about an Islamist threat in Central Asia is a pretext to allow Russia more subtly to gain influence in the region. "Everyone knows that the Taliban won't cross from Afghanistan into Central Asia, but everyone claims that's the threat," he said. "It's rhetoric. We want to scare them so much that they let us in in advance; we want presence, not war."
But the CSTO is, nevertheless, preparing for war. The scenario of the Tsentr-2011 exercises, though ostensibly designed to counter small groups of terrorists, had many components that suggested preparations for more conventional military operations. There was an air defense exercise, for example, and Russia's entire Caspian Sea Flotilla was involved, even though Islamist terrorists are unlikely to use air or naval forces.
In Kyrgyzstan, the CSTO forces drilled on a scenario in which militants occupied a valley near the capital, Bishkek, and Kyrgyz soldiers, supported by Russian attack jets and Kyrgyz helicopters, destroyed them, according to a report on state television. In Kazakhstan, an air defense exercise was held in the Karaganda region and in the Mangistau Area, a group of militants landed in Kazakhstan via speed boats from the Caspian Sea but were repelled by Russian and Kazakhstan naval and coast guard forces, attack helicopters and artillery.
A Russian tabloid, Moskovsky Komsomolets, published what it said were documents detailing the scenario of part of the Kazakhstan-Russia portion of the exercises, which involved an air attack from the south of the Caspian Sea with dozens of jets, including F-4s, F-5s and Su-25s, suggesting strongly that Iran was the imagined enemy.
"If extremist Islamist groups move into Central Asia, that will not look like an external invasion, which needs to be met with thousands of tanks and aviation. This is something that would demand specially trained commando forces," Dubnov said.
Combating extremism also requires other means than military, analysts note. "Russia's strategy could be effective in terms of reaction [to extremism], but not prevention," said Yulia Nikitina, a scholar at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations who recently co-authored a report on the CSTO published by the Moscow think tank the Institute of Contemporary Development.
The CSTO has yet to develop a clear mission, and has discussed getting involved in several other sorts of security measures, including programs to combat extremism on the internet, illegal immigration and drug smuggling, Nikitina added. "That may be too much for an organization that doesn't know yet what it wants to be," she said.
Editor's note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.