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CSTO Moves Into The Information Age

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) agrees with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka that CSTO members must learn from the recent events of the "Arab Spring."
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) agrees with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka that CSTO members must learn from the recent events of the "Arab Spring."
Much of the analysis concerning the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- a military alliance comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- neglects significant internal dynamics and perpetuates organizational myths.

Such approaches feature within prominent Russian commentaries, questioning the utility of the CSTO, its purpose, and setting out a case for its dysfunctional condition based on the failure to intervene in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, when ethnic clashes targeting minority Uzbeks took the lives of several hundred people and resulted in the displacement of about 400,000. As the CSTO prepares to stage the first major military exercise since making important organizational changes in December 2010, these questions and characterizations have resurfaced.

Later this month, the strategic military exercise Tsentr 2011 will test the capabilities of the new Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (KSOR) and potential responses to a wider range of threat scenarios. Military and security forces will unite under the CSTO banner in southern Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan; as in previous KSOR exercises, Uzbekistan refuses to participate.

Although CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha has publicly commented on concern about the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan and its potential impact on security in Central Asia, reportedly this is not reflected in the overall CSTO exercise scenario. Assessing these developments in isolation masks deeper underlying shifts occurring within CSTO transformation and underestimates the complexity of the internal dynamics at play.

Critics of the CSTO highlight its failure to act after Roza Otunbaeva, in her capacity as the interim leader of the Kyrgyz government, requested assistance in response to the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. This critique is misleading since the CSTO charter would have prohibited such intervention, which pledges "noninterference in matters falling within the national jurisdiction of the member states." And according to Bordyuzha, delegates to the CSTO never contemplated military operations. Uzbekistan was far from absent during these complex diplomatic efforts, indeed, much of the serious deliberations occurred at the bilateral level between Moscow and Tashkent.

In the months that followed, CSTO leaders moved to reconsider the circumstances in which the organization might authorize the use of force. That process culminated in the CSTO summit in Moscow on December 10, 2010, resulting in the signing of 33 documents, including amendments to the Collective Security Treaty and the CSTO Charter. Uzbekistan refused to join other members in this course of action and it continues to question its legal basis (the treaty and charter were amended without the consent of all members).

As a result of the Moscow summit, the CSTO moved to allow intervention in a domestic conflict on the territory of one its members in response to a request by the host government. Action could not have occurred in June 2010, not least because the CSTO could, at the time, only respond to external aggression, which would trigger its collective mechanism much like NATO's Article 5. Previously, military intervention required consensus among CSTO members, which the Moscow summit modified: in a future crisis, a simple majority may be enough to initiate action. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan agreed and approved such changes, and are considering additional measures as part of that process.

But Tashkent's position is carefully considered, principled and consistent: the core mission for the CSTO, it believes, is collective defense, and the body should not transition into a regional policeman. The rest of the members, on the other hand, adopt an equally resolute stance: the CSTO must adapt to meet the real security challenges faced by its members and permit action in a broader range of situations. At its heart, the organization is grappling with differing visions of the security architecture model: whether to remain exclusively collective or become more cooperative-based, providing a legal mandate for action agreed by a group of members across a broad range of possible scenarios.

Lessons Of The 'Arab Spring'

This conundrum surfaced long before the Kyrgyz crisis erupted, and arguably stems from the period in 2007 and 2008 when members began addressing the need to develop CSTO peacekeeping forces in addition to the KSOR. The latter was conceived in 2008 and fully discussed during the informal CSTO summit in Borovoye, Kazakhstan, in December 2008. Since Uzbekistan plays no role in KSOR, it is worth noting that the bulk of the force is Russo-Kazakh, reflecting the high level of political will in Moscow and Astana to transform the organization. Russia's main military contribution is a division and brigade from its elite airborne forces (98th Air Division and 31st Air Assault Brigade) while Kazakhstan contributes a brigade (37th Air Assault Brigade). Other members offer no more than a battalion.

Uncertainty persists surrounding the circumstances in which KSOR would be deployed operationally, but its missions certainly transcend mere collective defense. Consequently, a mechanism now exists that would allow some type of CSTO intervention in response to a domestic crisis, but it cannot legally act without the consent of the host government.

One key facilitator of CSTO transformation has been through informal summits, naturally preparing initiatives later finalized at official summit level. Ahead of the informal CSTO summit in Astana on August 12, Bordyuzha confirmed that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had raised the "Arab Spring" and its implications for the CSTO, requesting that it should be placed on the agenda in Astana. In the aftermath of the domestic crackdown following the Belarusian presidential election in December 2010, Lukashenka seemed to be expressing renewed interest in the potential for the CSTO to prevent Arab Spring-style instability.

Other CSTO leaders were keen to address such sensitive concerns. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke of the need to build an "impregnable wall" to prevent any spillover of such revolutions in Central Asia. In a keynote speech during the informal summit, the Kazakh leader suggested that an unregulated information space posed "threats to regional security and stability in the CSTO member states, especially in light of the latest developments in the world."

Very little of this discussion is featuring in the public arena, but according to Bordyuzha, the CSTO plans to develop a systematic approach to counter "cyberterrorism." He stated that the CSTO currently conducts operations in cyberspace, which detect a number of websites "working against the state." By December 2011, a high-level expert working group will present its findings on how the CSTO can develop this new approach. "As you see, no troops, terrorist groups, insurgents, or political organizations are required to destabilize the situation in the country by using information technologies," Bordyuzha said. "The work on information counteraction is one of the priorities of the CSTO's activity."

Moscow-based Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs," characterized any move to allow KSOR intervention in a domestic crisis as double-edged, since it might serve as a means to permit essentially Russian military intervention. While the agreements signed in Moscow in December 2010 could form the basis for such missions, any intervention still requires host-nation consent. Lukyanov raised the specter of the CSTO leaning towards resolving internal conflicts rather than repelling external aggression, thus assuming the character of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which earlier this year helped put down a Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain.

As such debates continue, it is already clear that the CSTO will change in response to the Arab Spring. The body's leaders are now seeking to meet the challenges of the information era in reactive terms. Consequently, the first CSTO "operations" may well occur in cyberspace rather than by any recourse to hard power.

Roger McDermott is a senior fellow in Eurasian military studies at the Jamestown Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL