It wasn't exactly a surprise when Uzbekistan pulled out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s alternative to NATO, this week. But while many Russian commentators appear offended, some are asking if a new CSTO rule on hosting foreign bases was just too much for Tashkent to stomach.
Tashkent has long been the nebulous body’s sulking brat, refusing to participate in joint military exercises and antagonizing fellow members such as neighboring Tajikistan. At the same time, Uzbekistan has become critical to the NATO war effort in Afghanistan. So the withdrawal, for those who see the CSTO in direct competition with NATO, stings.
Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the CIS Institute in Moscow, told RIA Novosti that Uzbekistan’s choice displays "a clear desire of President [Islam] Karimov to flirt with the United States."
The Voice of Russia calls the move “risky.” Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute, told the outlet that “Tashkent’s foreign policy is zigzagging” while it tries to “win the love of NATO.”
Moscow's new anti-NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has promoted itself as a tool for putting down Arab Spring-style uprisings in the post-Soviet space. But now backers are going a step further, proposing the CSTO deal with the Arab Spring at its source, by sending CSTO peacekeepers to Syria.
The proposal was made by Igor Yurgens, the head of Kremlin-affiliated think tank Institute for Contemporary Development, according to a report in the newspaper Izvestia:
“We should take a more flexible stance on Syria,” he said. “Let’s propose sending CSTO peacekeepers to Syria. The unit has 20,000 well trained and armed servicemen. Let’s send them to the assistance of Kofi Annan – at our expense.”
Ahead of last year's CSTO joint military exercises, 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." But it's a big step from putting down those uprisings at home, and another to put them down in another part of the world.
If the CSTO has 20,000 well trained peacekeepers, 19,000 of them are Russian. The remaining CSTO member states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- have shown only occasional enthusiasm for Russia's ambitious plans for the alliance, and it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine any of those countries sending their soldiers to Syria.
Yurgens's proposal came the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly blamed Russia for blocking international assistance to Syria. Yurgens alluded to the fact that Russia's position on Syria is doing it no favors in the international arena:
Central Asia's presidents would have a lot to talk about at the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, given that the summit is focusing on Afghanistan and the Central Asian states play a key role in NATO transport to the theater. But all five of Central Asia's presidents are a no-show at the NATO summit in Chicago, in spite of being on NATO's official list of "leaders expected to attend" and being regular attendees of the last few summits. Instead, they all seem to have sent their foreign ministers.
It's a strange snub, and intriguing because these five countries never do anything in coordination. Information on their decisions are of course hard to come by, and so it's not certain if they are in fact coordinated, but it sure seems that way.
One Kyrgyzstan analyst, Orozbek Moldaliyev, told KyrTag that it's because of Russia:
"One can make various guesses and speculation about why none of the leaders of Central Asian countries responded to the invitation and why all of them are sending their foreign ministers. One of the main reasons, which is on the surface, could be solidarity with Russia," Moldaliyev told KyrTAg.
Moldaliyev pointed out the recent CSTO directive to harmonize members' foreign policies, which is as reasonable explanation as any for the collective no-show, especially since Armenia's Serzh Sargsyan also seems to be skipping it.
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....