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Eurasian Grouping Plans Regional Army Near Afghanistan

CSTO members in Moscow on September 4
CSTO members in Moscow on September 4
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, (CSTO), which brings together Russia and a number of other ex-Soviet countries, has announced an ambitious plan to set up an 11,000-strong regional army in Central Asia that will have troops deployed in the vicinity of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The grouping says the move is intended to deal with potential "challenges to the sovereignty" of its member states.

But many observers see it as Moscow's response to possible further NATO expansion and to Washington's decision to deploy an antimissile defense system in Central Europe.

CSTO Secretary-General Nikolay Bordyuzha said the organization's plan to establish a joint army comes mainly in response to the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. But he made it clear that the regional forces, which would reportedly have up to 11,000 in its units and subdivisions, "should be ready to confront any kind of a challenge to the sovereignty" of the member states.

CSTO spokesman Vitaly Strugavets confirmed that Russia and four of the organization's Central Asian members -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- have already reached agreement on the issue.

"The creation of joint military forces of [the] Central Asian region is being planned," Strugavets said. "It would be similar to already existing Russian-Belarusian united forces in the Eastern Europe region, as well as the CSTO's forces in the Caucasus region -- that is, our joint Russian-Armenian forces."

Southern Angst

Many observers share the belief that the security situation has worsened in Afghanistan, which lies alongside CSTO's southern borders.

But experts who spoke to RFE/RL indicated that the effort to establish a regional force in Central Asia can be seen as Moscow's reaction to events on or near its western borders, where there is increasing talk of Georgia and Ukraine entering NATO, and where parts of a U.S. antimissile shield will be based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russia has fiercely opposed Washington's missile-defense plans, which gathered momentum with Poland's inking of a deal with the U.S. in the midst of the Georgia-Russia crisis. The brief war between Russia and Georgia also spurred new discussions on Tbilisi's and Kyiv's efforts to join the NATO military alliance, whose expansion Moscow has also railed against.

Bordyuzha addressed the issue in announcing the establishment of the CSTO force, saying "all CSTO member states are concerned as military installations and serious military structures such as antiaircraft defense systems are being built around them."

Moscow has turned south and east -- to Central Asia and China -- to find support for its military intervention in Georgia, which it argues was necessary protect Russian passport holders in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Dushanbe in August, China and Central Asian member states disappointed Moscow by calling for the crisis to be resolved through negotiations, and failing to recognize South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence.

Cozy Setting

Unlike the Shanghai grouping, however, the CSTO does not include China, improving Moscow's chances of garnering support. Indeed, at a recent summit the CSTO, while also failing to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, praised Moscow's response to "Georgian aggression."

SCTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are all former Soviet states with close ties with Russia.

However, despite getting the approval the grouping Central Asian states for the new security-force initiative, it is going to be mainly Russia's responsibility to finance it.

It is unlikely that poorer Central Asian countries Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan can contribute greatly to the joint forces' funding and military equipment.

On the contrary, according to Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor of the country-risk department for Jane's Information Group, Central Asian countries are likely expecting incentives for joining the potential united military force.

"It would be Russian-led and primarily it would be Russian military units and equipment," Clements said. "But it would also allow Russia to push forward with training and resupplying elements of the armed forces within states. And that is something these countries would welcome, obviously -- increased investment to their armed forces."

History suggests that Russia's efforts to see the creation of a military force, parts of which would be stationed just kilometers from NATO forces in Afghanistan, might never materialize.

Squeezed In Central Asia?

It is not the first time Secretary-General Bordyuzha has announced the CSTO's intention to establish a regional army involving Russia and Central Asian republics. He made similar statements in 2005, but the plan was never implemented.

It is unclear to what extent Central Asian countries would be committed to extended military cooperation with Russia. Even if they did closely cooperate with Russia, it is unlikely they would want such efforts to harm relations with the West.

Highlighting their middleman position, in the days after reportedly agreeing to the CSTO joint army proposal Central Asian countries were sending foreign ministers to Paris to take part in the first-ever EU-Central Asian forum on security issues.

Kyrgyzstan hosts both Russian and a U.S. airbase. Tajikistan, which hosts 7,000 Russian soldiers -- Russia's largest military contingent outside its borders -- has a limited number of French troops stationed in Dushanbe airport, and the country's border guards receive significant aids from the United States.

Uzbekistan, which in recent years closed down the U.S. airbase it had allowed on its territory as part of the military campaign in Afghanistan, has recently suggested that NATO will be allowed to use Uzbek military bases to support operations in the South Asian country.

Kazakhstan, the richest country in Central Asia, depends on Western investments to fund the development of its oilfields. While it was the first country to approve the CSTO plan, even Russian media has questioned Astana's commitment to it, with the Russian daily "Vremya novostei" recently writing that "Kazakhstan is the least economically dependent on Russia and, unlike others in the region, has not faced severe security threats from religious extremists coming from Afghanistan."

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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