The Interstate Corporation of Development's booth at KADEX 2012
Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo was a sleek, modern booth showing off several mockup drones in front of a backdrop advertising the "Business Council of the International Commission for Military-Economic Cooperation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization."
The CSTO, the political-military alliance? Was selling drones? Well, sort of. I inquired further and discovered that the booth actually belonged to a new company (established at the end of last year), the Interstate Corporation for Development. The company's aim is “Development of Scientific-Industrial and High-Tech Cooperation in the CSTO Countries,” according to its website, and its CEO is Ivan Polyakov, also a senior official in the CSTO. The company was formed from two Russian defense firms as well as one in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, Ak-Maral, and the company is also looking to expand into Armenia and even non-CSTO member Ukraine, company spokesman Sergey Demensky told me.
He didn't mince words: "Our aim is to recreate the traditional links and cooperation that existed in the Soviet era," he said. To this end, the company is now marketing military communications equipment, as well as the drones they were showcasing. As is often the case with the CSTO, the details behind this ambitious goal were hard to come by. Why did the CSTO need its own defense manufacturing? Kazakhstan is setting up its own drone manufacturing with Israeli companies, and is building its own communications equipment with French firm Thales. (Demensky suggested that his company was competing with Thales, and complained that the "French lobby" was exerting undue influence in Astana.)
Russia is planning to increase its presence of airborne troops in Central Asia and the Caucasus, a sign that Moscow sees a greater possibility of fighting in the region. The planned deployment was announced by Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the airborne troops, and reported by Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in a report translated into English by RIA Novosti):
Russian military bases in Central Asia and the Caucasus are to be considerably strengthened. They might be reinforced by units of the national Airborne Force to increase mobility and combat efficiency, said the force’s commander.
Airborne forces (i.e., those that parachute into action) are fairly elite units, and suggest a more active role for the Russian military than would the current Russian troops in Armenia and Tajikistan, which are mostly infantry.
Shamanov didn't provide many details of the proposed reinforcements, but said that they were required both by the necessity to "successfully accomplish the objectives set by Russia’s leaders" as well as to strengthen Russia's "international commitments" to the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Those commitments, it should be noted, are largely self-imposed by Russia without much apparent enthusiasm from other CSTO members and are themselves an instrument of accomplishing the objectives of Russia's leaders.)
The report notes that Russian airborne troops were deployed to Kyrgyzstan during the recent unrest, to Tajikistan during CSTO exercises last year and are scheduled to be sent to Armenia for CSTO exercises later this year. "But it is unclear whether airborne units will remain there on a permanent basis," NG adds.
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision:
Each Collective Security Treaty Organization member country will get a veto over any new foreign military bases in member states, the group agreed at a summit today in Moscow. From RIA Novosti:
"Now, in order to accommodate extra-regional military structures on the territory of the CSTO, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all [CSTO] members,” [Kazakhstan President Nursultan] Nazarbayev said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev added that “all parties reached a mutual agreement” on the decision.
The CSTO includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The most obvious effect of this is that Russia now can veto any future U.S. bases in Central Asia. As the saga between India and Tajikistan has recently shown, and the last Manas-is-closing scare did earlier, Moscow already has quite a bit of say over this issue. But would Uzbekistan listen if Moscow told them they couldn't host some foreign base? Might Uzbekistan try to veto a new Russian facility in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan? It seems very doubtful Russia would listen then.
An analysis in Kommersant (in Russian) says that while, publicly, the organization is most focused on the threat to the region from instability in Afghanistan, behind the scenes the real fear is "the West's rising influence on post-Soviet territories." And it includes an interesting tidbit about U.S. regional anti-drug initiatives. Translation via Johnson's Russia List:
Russia is trying to get its putative allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization to adopt unified official positions on issues from human rights, terrorism and even World War II history, with the aim of making the group speak with a single voice on foreign policy issues. That's according to a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant and summarized in English by Ferghana News. According to Kommersant, CSTO members received a draft nine-page document of the "collective directives" on September 26, and that the issue will be formally taken up at a CSTO summit in Moscow next month.
From Ferghana's account:
A nine-page long paper embraces such areas as countering attempts of falsification of the history (primarily meaning the history of the World War II), as well as areas like international security and disarmament, anti-missile defense, cooperation between CSTO and OSCE with NATO, situation in Afghanistan, response to international terrorism, drugs and organized crime, as well as human rights. The countries of the alliance are going to make joint statements and coordinate their positions in respect to the above issues in front of such organizations as UN, OSCE and other international forums.
Russia's envoy to the CSTO Igor Lyakin-Frolov told Kommersant: "Collective directives -- this is an important tool to determine the main targets of our common foreign policy." And he added that a key goal of this was to gain NATO recognition of the group:
[T]he new initiative should, according to Mr. Lyakina-Frolov, "make the CSTO visible and important international institution with a serious military and political weight, which will be listened to in the world...
Uzbekistan has been keeping the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-dominated security bloc of post-Soviet countries, at arm's length: formally, it's a member, but it hasn't lately participated in any CSTO events, like the recent large-scale military exercises the group held. And now Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko says it's time for Tashkent to decide -- and that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agrees:
“Even Uzbekistan that today has a specific stance will eventually understand that it will find it hard to preserve independence without the CSTO,” the President of Belarus said. He emphasized that the accession is a domestic matter of Uzbekistan and “we are not interfering”. “Although I have recently shared my thoughts with the President of Russia. We need to make a decision on Uzbekistan. Because Uzbekistan cannot join the CSTO as long as it is playing this triple game,” Alexander Lukashenko is convinced. After all, Uzbekistan has not ratified a single significant document of the CSTO yet, it only formally stated that it is allegedly returning to the CSTO."
Upcoming military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries are targeted both preventing the spread of the "Arab Spring" into Russia's near abroad, and the possibility of Islamists destabilizing Central Asia after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. From September 19-27, about 12,000 troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will practice counterinsurgency in Russia and Kazakhstan, and Russia's Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov said the exercise's scenario would deal with "possible negative developments following the example of events in Libya and Syria, as well as the export of instability from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO troops from there in 2014," reports Vedemosti (in Russian).
The article goes on to quote Makarov as saying that 80 percent of the tasks of a modern army are "post-conflict settlement," so the exercise, called Tsentr-2011, will simulate fighting against small groups of militants. The article also notes, however, that Makarov said that Russia's entire Caspian Sea Flotilla would be involved in the exercise, which suggests that there may be more going on than just counterinsurgency here.
Analyst Roger McDermott, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, further notes that the scenario also envisages enemy aircraft and a chemical weapons attack on a southern Russian city. He says that the inclusion of aviation and naval components in the exercise is a muscle-flexing move by Russia:
One point must be stressed: this element in the exercise bears no relation to any concern about a future bleed out in Central Asia of a resurgent Taliban....
A think tank chaired by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has come up with an interesting idea for getting the largely ineffective Collective Security Treaty Organization off the ground: Kick out Uzbekistan.
The Institute of Contemporary Development, known by its Russian acronym, INSOR, is presenting a report on the CSTO at the Global Policy Forum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl this week that will include proposals to reform decision-making within the bloc from the current consensual format to a simple majority vote.
"In light of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014, we need to decide what is more important: [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov's opinions or the security of Russia and its allies," he said. "It is evident that nobody needs the CSTO as just a talking shop."
Karimov's strongest objections to the internal organization of the CSTO have been over the implementation of a rapid reaction force. Uzbekistan remains deeply wary of Moscow's ultimate intentions and appears to suspect the Kremlin of attempting to gradually take over Central Asia's security.
The report also proposes overhauling relations between the CSTO and NATO. While the Russian-led bloc was initially intended as a counterweight to NATO, it is increasingly evident that the two groups share joint challenges dealing with security in and around Afghanistan.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (often called by boosters a "NATO of the East") held an "informal summit" (which meant, apparently, that the presidents didn't wear ties) in Astana on Friday and there were a couple of noteworthy emphases: the group is taking an active stance against "cyber threats" and it is finalizing development of a rapid-reaction force that could intervene in member countries.
Neither of those initiatives are exactly new, and there is also little information about them, but Kremlinologically speaking we should probably pay attention to the fact that they were the things that were emphasized should make us take them a little more seriously than we had before.
Last year, CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha spoke about an "information security" program that sounded pretty frankly Orwellian, and then wasn't much heard of. Now, though, he has brought up the topic again, reports RT:
“No military contingents or groups of gunmen are needed to destabilize the situation in this or that state when information technologies are at their disposal,” [Bordyuzha] said.
This is what’s happening, Bordyuzha warned, while explaining why the work on information counteraction is one of the top priorities of the CSTO. He recalled that the bloc has been conducting security operations in cyber space for a long time.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization may not have done much last summer when ethnic violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan, but it won't stand idly by again, the group's head says. Nikolai Bordyuzha, the CSTO's secretary general, said the group is monitoring the situation, according to Regnum.ru:
"We are monitoring the situation in Kyrgyzstan, we know that there are elements of aggravation," - he said.
However, according to Bordyuzha, the Kyrgyz government to take proactive measures, including the transfer of additional units. "If you will continue worsening, the Council of CSTO will take appropriate action. We are ready for any action and have adequate capacity," - said Bordyuzha.
But Kyrgyzstan -- lately quite sensitive about foreigners opining about their ethnic troubles -- has reacted angrily to the CSTO's statement. According to a different Regnum story, Bishkek's ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, said "neither the CSTO nor any other organization has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Kyrgyzstan." And he said that the situation, anyway, was different now than it was last summer, when the government and its security forces were weak because of the recent change in government.
The CSTO has been lately talking up its willingness to intervene, saying also that just because it didn't get involved last year in Kyrgyzstan doesn't mean it wouldn't do so in Nagorno Karabakh if fighting broke out there. Does this mark the era of a new, more assertive CSTO? It'll be interesting to watch...