Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses his security council, July 22. (photo: kremlin.ru)
When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his security council on July 22, one statement in particular piqued the interest of Russia's allies -- er, friends: "Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty," Putin said. "Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty."
That line was greeted with confusion and curiosity by many in the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This is the political-military bloc that Russia created to, as the name implies, provide collective security in the post-Soviet space. But doesn't collective security require giving up some sovereignty? Several experts quoted in a piece on the Kazakhstani website kursiv.kz suggested that Putin's statement suggest that it sees its fellow-members of the CSTO (and, for that matter, the Eurasian Union) as unequal partners to whom Russia has no obligations.
"Moscow's interests, expressed in the efforts to define the borders to which it can expand its territory, striving to defend the 'Russian world,' by definition can not coincide with the interests of its CSTO partners," said Russian expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov. "So, acting exclusively in its own interests, Russia demonstrates that the CSTO isn't an alliance but a mesalliance -- that is, an unequal marriage."
But Dubnov added, with a bit of irony, that this also holds benefits for the other CSTO members: "After all Putin, thus disavowing the CSTO as a military-political alliance also justified the behavior of CSTO allies who failed to unanimously support Russia's position with respect to the August war with Georgia, as with the current events in Ukraine. It's difficult to say if in Moscow they are expecting a 'thank you' from Astana, Minsk, Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Yerevan for getting this indulgence, for the right to decline solidarity with the search for a Russian identity that is alien to them."
The statement also could play into the hands of those opposing the Eurasian integration projects, said another analyst, Dmitry Mikhailichenko: "Putin's phrases about alliances and associations leading to the loss of sovereignty will be relished for a long time by the anti-Eurasian communities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan."
In another discussion of Putin's speech at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer echoed the point about an 'unequal marriage': "Putin said that 'Russia, thank god, has not entered any alliances,' forgetting about the CSTO, the Eurasian Union and all the others. Apparently he doesn't consider these alliances, but something else, maybe he thinks that it is the prototype of the Soviet Union, but not an alliance at all."
Strictly speaking, Putin is right: alliances do, of course, limit sovereignty. And CSTO officials rarely uses the word "alliance" to describe the organization, instead using words that translate closer to "union" or "association." "Alliance" almost always refers to NATO, which was of course the real target of Putin's speech. (It's not unheard of for the CSTO to be called an "alliance," though; CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha did so here.) Still, by his choice of phrase Putin has again given rise to worries that the CSTO is less about what Russia can do for its partners, and more about what its partners can do for it.