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Russian-Led Military Group Struggles To Find Its Role -- And Relevance -- Amid Taliban Takeover

Russian troops line up before the start of joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan on August 10.
Russian troops line up before the start of joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan on August 10.

In early July, with the United States on the verge of moving up the deadline to quit Afghanistan and end its longest war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked if Moscow might one day have to send its own troops back. He pointed to a Central Asian state that shares a lengthy, and very porous border, with Afghanistan.

"I believe the answer is obvious," Lavrov said. "We are allies with Tajikistan. And if there is an attack on Tajikistan, of course, this would be an immediate topic for consideration by the CSTO" -- the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Now that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has become a reality, however, the answer is anything but obvious.

And the Taliban's return to power in Kabul has raised a host of new questions when it comes to the CSTO's role and relevance in protecting its members, and Central Asia as a whole, from any potential threat from Afghanistan.

Russia has made it clear that any renewed U.S. military presence in Central Asia is not welcome, and suggested it could even attract Islamic extremists emboldened by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. But Moscow has also not insisted on taking the lead role in providing security in what it considers its backyard, with three Central Asian states situated along Afghanistan's northern border.

The Kremlin has instead stressed the need to bolster the CSTO -- the loose-knit grouping of six former Soviet states that Moscow dominates and uses to push its regional foreign-policy objectives.

'As An Alliance, It Doesn't Work'

Founded in 1992, the alliance now includes Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Over the years, Moscow has continually sought to deepen military integration among the member countries; most have been deeply wary of Moscow's ultimate intentions -- particularly after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Like NATO, the organization includes a mutual-defense clause in its founding treaty. It has never been invoked.

As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in recent months and closed in on Kabul, Moscow has tried to position the CSTO at the ready.

In recent weeks the organization held an emergency session to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, announced military exercises in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and has said it plans to explore its options for "joint response measures" regarding Afghanistan during its summit in Dushanbe on September 16.

But while the CSTO may look similar to NATO on paper, military experts express serious doubts about the group's ability to respond to threats as one.

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Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer describes the CSTO as a "joke" that is more of a framework for Moscow's bilateral relations with fellow members than a true military alliance. "As an alliance it doesn't work," he said by telephone from Moscow, adding that there was "no chance" of Russia sending in troops to Afghanistan in the event of an attack on one of the group's members.

The CSTO is "demonstrably weak in terms of collective unity and woefully incapable of providing security," said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent, Yerevan-based think tank. "The CTSO alliance is not only Russian-led, but is also Russia-dependent, revealing that the only 'firepower' capacity comes from Russian forces, with local capabilities limited to basic border security at best," he said in an e-mail to RFE/RL.

The Taliban has tried to assuage fears that its return to power could lead to cross-border attacks on Tajikistan or other bordering states: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, neither of which are members of the alliance.

Despite being officially labeled a terrorist organization by Russia, Taliban officials have also engaged in discussions with Moscow -- and traveled there regularly -- aimed at establishing a sound working relationship.

Felgenhauer said the Taliban crossing any borders into Central Asia "is not happening," but that there was a window for insurrection and infiltration that local populations "might be inclined to support."

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As a result, Russia is much more interested in keeping a lid on that situation than it is in Afghanistan, Felgenhauer said. "Russia says they will defend the border, and obviously they will," he said, adding that "Russia is not a joke" and "is not ready to hand over decision-making on military matters" to an outside organization like the CSTO.

Central Asian Bases

Russia has a number of strategic assets at its disposal in Central Asia, Felgenhauer noted, including a major military base in Tajikistan, and would take things into its own hands if retaliation were required, by, for example, launching air strikes in Afghanistan.

Looking ahead to the CSTO summit in Dushanbe later this month, Giragosian said the group "seems pressed to mitigate the negative security implication from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan." With U.S. troops out of the picture, he said, "any CSTO response to the Afghan situation may actually be 'too little, too late' as any effective security response depends on a fragile and daunting combination of Russian resolve and Central Asian unity."

Aside from this tricky diplomatic balancing act, and the potential for spillover from the resurgent Taliban, the CSTO will face another fundamental challenge: the divergence of interests between Russia and "local Central Asia elites."

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Russia will seek to forge its own transactional relationship with the new Taliban leadership in Kabul, Giragosian said: local elites, however, will be "ready to barter greater dependence on Russia for security guarantees," but may offer Moscow far too little in contrast to an opportunity for fresh Russian power and influence " in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Ultimately, "the CSTO has never been able to prove its credibility or provide confidence in its role," Giragosian said, adding that the alliance's relevance was "derived solely from Russia's role."

"This case is no different," he said. "The CSTO has never been able to overcome Russia's dominance and has always failed to demonstrate either initiative or collective alignment beyond Moscow's shadowy offer of security."