When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
The Secretary General of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization was asked whether the group, which just finished peacekeeping exercises in Kyrgyzstan, might be able to intervene in Ukraine. That he didn't say "no" made news.
“The peacekeeping forces of the CSTO were formed several years ago and has undergone military preparation," said the CSTO chief, Nikolay Bordyuzha, in an interview with RIA Novosti on Friday. "The military personnel in its ranks are well-prepared in individual relations and equipped with all the needed military and technical means. They are ready to participate in peacekeeping operations of any caliber, as was confirmed by the results of recent joint drills in the Republic of Kyrgyszstan."
And he added that it would have to be a decision made jointly by the other CSTO members, which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. “Deployment of the CSTO peacekeeping forces is within the jurisdiction of the Council for Collective Security of the Treaty, the supreme body of the CSTO consisting of the members’ heads of state. With their joint decision and in accordance with existing agreements, the peacekeeping forces can be deployed within and without the territory of member states."
CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces drill in Kazakhstan. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and its allies are practicing military drills involving a "separatist" force supported by sympathetic co-ethnics across the border, trying to provoke the central government into a disproportionate use of force, justifying an invasion by the bordering country.
That scenario may sound a lot like what's going on in Ukraine. But in the ongoing exercises, Russia is on the otherside: fighting against the separatists, carrying out what might be called an "Anti-Terror Operation" to regain control of the border territory.
The exercises, of the Collective Security Treaty Organization's rapid reaction forces, took place this week in Kazakhstan, and involved about 3,000 soldiers from CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. And the public description of the scenario for the exercises is much more detailed than it has been in past years, providing an intriguing look into what Russia (the dominant power in the group) sees as the threats it could be facing in its region.
The parallels to Ukraine are far from exact -- in the CSTO exercises, the conflict is in Central Asia and there is fighting on both sides of the border. And here, the separatists are supported by the West and are known as the "brown" forces, presumably an allusion to the fascists that Russia believes it's fighting in Ukraine. The scenario, published on the CSTO website, is worth quoting at length:
A joint operation [is undertaken] to localize an armed conflict on the territory of a CSTO member state, 'Karania,' which according to the scenario of the exercise, has appealed to the CSTO with a request for military assistance."
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."
Russian forces transported during recent snap military exercises in the Central Military District (photo: Russian MoD)
Snap Russian military exercises involving 65,000 troops also included Russian forces based in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And the exercises demonstrated that "the main tasks of the Russian army in the near future will be focused not only on the Western, but also on the Central Asian military theater," wrote Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
The exercises took place June 21-28 in Russia's Central Military District, and is part of a broader push by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to institute these sorts of large-scale, unannounced exercises as a way of testing the armed forces' readiness. "The war games will give the picture of combat readiness of the troops stationed on a swathe of huge territory from the Volga River through the Urals Mountains to Siberia, and from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppe on Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan," reported state television network RT.
Some units from the Western and Southern military districts also took part in the drills, and NATO accused Moscow of using them to threaten Ukraine. "A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, lamented Moscow’s military exercises, saying that 'it can be seen as a further escalation of the crisis with Ukraine,'" the AP reported.
The Eurasian Economic Union complements the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization but the two organizations shouldn't be merged -- at least in the short term -- the CSTO's Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said in an interview. He added that the organization was creating "special operations" forces that would be involved in thwarting "cyberattacks." Bordyuzha compared Russia's post-Soviet integration schemes to those of Europe, with the Eurasian Economic Union the analog of the European Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization similar to NATO. He told Belarussian news agency BelTA;
For example in Europe you have NATO and the European Union. Not one government is accepted into the European Union without joining NATO. NATO deals with security, the EU with politics, economics and so on. The same scheme is proposed for relations between the CSTO and the EEU. That is, the EEU will resolve economic issues, and the CSTO -- politics and security. I think that we will work precisely in this vein.
That's an interesting division of labor, with the "politics" being the responsibility of the EU in Europe, but of the CSTO in the post-Soviet world. The EEU members have been stressing that the union is purely economic, not political, in order to assuage Russia's wary allies that they won't be giving up any of their sovereignty by joining. But do those allies want a "political" alliance if it's in the form of the CSTO, rather than the EEU? Anyway, Bordyuzha continues:
A GM-400 air defense radar, recently purchased by Kazakhstan. (photo: ThalesRaytheonSystems)
During its big defense expo last month, Kazakhstan announced that it is buying air defense radars from French-American company ThalesRaytheonSystems.
Air defense radars aren't the sexiest piece of military hardware, but this was an interesting move given Kazakhstan's large dependence on Russia for air defense. Russia and Kazakhstan are in the process of setting up a joint air defense system under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; in May, Kazakhstan's senate ratified the deal. And as part of this arrangement, Russia gave Kazakhstan several S-300 air defense systems in January. Other CSTO partners Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are in various stages of joining the system as well. “Such cooperation greatly enhances the defense potential of Russia and its partners, and contributes to strengthening peace and stability in Eurasia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has set up a new "anti-terror unit" in an apparent effort by China to deepen cooperation with Russia and Central Asia in its fight against Uyghur nationalist groups.
The director of the SCO's anti-terror section, based in Tashkent, gave a series of interviews to Chinese media last week and gave a handful of new details about the organization's security efforts in Central Asia. From China Daily:
"Many terrorists who carried out deadly attacks in China watched or listened to video or audio files online with extremist ideological content, but such materials are produced or uploaded outside China," Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Eurasian grouping's regional anti-terrorist structure executive committee, said at its headquarters in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.
"The regional anti-terrorist structure decided to set up a special unit at the end of 2013 to deal with the new situation."
Xhang doesn't elaborate in that interview on what the new unit is, but in another interview, with the Global Times he reports that "our anti-terrorist structure established a joint expert team from all SCO members later last year to deal with the threat from the Internet." (Members of the SCO are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
Presidents of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan watch a military exercise from the Kremlin. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an "informal" summit of his allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week as Moscow faced continued international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis. But the event only highlighted the misgivings of Russia's foreign policy direction, even among its closest allies.
For one, there was the absence of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of CSTO member Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the CSTO member with the most international stature (outside of Russia); with Kazakhstan the group hardly presents an impressive front; without it, remaining CSTO allies Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an even more motley crew.
And Nazarbayev's excuse was one unlikely to elicit understanding from the Kremlin: he had to stay in Astana to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. And Burns, after meeting with Nazarbayev, told the local press that he had brought the message from Washington that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure." The jilted CSTO allies continued on undaunted; It seems the words "Nazarbayev" or "Kazakhstan" were not uttered at the meeting, in public anyway, and the Kremlin account did not mention the fact that it was called under the auspices of the CSTO (though the CSTO itself did).
The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization announced on Thursday that it would stop all contacts with NATO. It's a decision not likely to be deeply mourned in Brussels, which rarely had evinced any interest in cooperating with the CSTO in the first place.
CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said at a Moscow press conference that: "For now we will not be making any efforts to establish contact with NATO, due to their stance during the Ukrainian crisis.... Today, NATO is blackmailing all of the CSTO member states ... showing that they are extremely dissatisfied with Russia's actions in recent months."
Bordyuzha's remarks echo those made by Russia's deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, earlier this week:
"There is moral pressure and an attempt to convince people that 'Russians are bad' and therefore they should look up to European democracy. They are talking about some military-technical assistance, about sending advisers and increasing the number of joint exercises. NATO has only one task to pursue — to drive a wedge between Russia and its allies, to tear us away from each other," Antonov said.