CSTO has failed to follow the successful path of NATO because of the different priorities, interests and mindset of its member states. Most importantly, there is no “Article 5” that binds each state together in a collective defense mechanism.

The leaders of the CSTO countries visit Russian Defense Ministry control room in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti / Presidential Press Service

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 to counterbalance the influence of the Soviet Union and to curb its possible expansion. Notably, this interpretation is acknowledged by the Alliance as being one of the reasons behind its establishment. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, created a huge power vacuum that left NATO the strongest military alliance on Earth.

The newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, supposedly with an intention to counterbalance NATO, signed the Tashkent Treaty (also known as the Collective Security Treaty), which gave birth to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The stated mission of the alliance is to guarantee security for its member states, which now include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.

But does the CSTO really provide an effective mechanism for its member states’ security?

The importance of NATO’s Article 5

In most cases, formal documents have little to do with the existing political reality. Nevertheless, the respective Charters of the CSTO and NATO are essential to grasp the true nature of both organizations. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is a vivid evidence of the “one for all, all for one” situation, where it is clearly emphasized that if one of the member states undergoes an armed attack by another state (or states), the rest would protect the attacked state by all means, including the use of force.

The approximate equivalent of Article 5 in the CSTO Charter is the following clause: “The goals of the Organization shall be strengthening of peace, international and regional security and stability, protection of independence on a collective basis, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Member States, in achievement of which the Member States prefer political means.”

It is evident that NATO’s pivotal Article 5 is more than clear and comprehensible. Therefore, any potential attacker anticipates that a possible attack on a NATO member state would entail a counterattack by all 28 members of the Alliance and not just some uncertain “political means.”

Moreover, the umbrella term “political means” is not unbundled in the CSTO Charter, paving the way for further speculation. Last but not least, the North Alliance Treaty specifies that all territories of its members are under the protection of NATO – that includes the territories under the jurisdiction of all members (including islands) and even their forces, vessels and aircraft.

In contrast, the CSTO charter gives no specification about the territories and military objects under collective protection. Hence, here the most intriguing question arises: Does the CSTO Charter cover Crimea? What are the member states supposed to do if, for example, Ukrainian troops or security services, as it allegedly happened very recently, launch an attack on Crimea?

Two different realities: NATO vs. CSTO

Since the Korean War, when U.S.-led NATO forces mandated by the UN Security Council intervened to entrench the geopolitical interests of the Alliance, NATO proved its viability and commitment to the protection of its shared interests. Its coherence was further demonstrated during the following interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya and the deployment of warships in the Aden Gulf near Somalia.

On the other hand, the CSTO has not been yet engaged in any serious international conflict management. It refused to intervene in Kyrgyzstan upon the invitation of its interim government in 2010 to appease the Osh region. The intrastate nature of the conflict served as a reasonable excuse for member states to bypass their obligation. So, what does the CSTO do when Azerbaijan is shooting at the Tavush Region of Armenia, killing a number of Armenian soldiers on a weekly basis?

The impotence of the CSTO is best illustrated in the statement delivered by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan during a CSTO Council meeting.

“Every time the armed forces of Azerbaijan use various small arms, mortars and artillery systems against the Republic of Armenia, they also shoot at Astana, Dushanbe, Bishkek, Moscow and Minsk,” the Armenian leader emphasized, citing a provision in the CSTO statutes stipulating that military aggression against one member of the pact also constitutes an attack on all members. 

Basically, he argued that such ignorance from other CSTO members to the collective security simply put the prestige and significance of the organization under question.

Notably, Kazakhstan and Belarus, for example, never showed any political support to Armenia after the ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan signed in 1994, when its territory was constantly being bombarded by Azerbaijani artillery. Moreover, they were always diplomatically siding with Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, the General Secretary of NATO, speaking on behalf of the alliance, expressed solidarity of NATO with Turkey when the latter attacked the Russian jet in November 2015. NATO is also adamant to defend its borders, especially those of the Baltic States, in order to deter any possible attack.

Different priorities for each CSTO member state

The priorities of the security alliances are derived by their members’ common interests, priorities and concerns. For Tajikistan, for example, the major challenge is its energy dependence on neighboring Uzbekistan, with which it has poor relations. The major issue is the Rogun Dam, a massive hydroelectric power plant, pending final construction. Uzbekistan, a former member of CSTO, is concerned with the dam’s impact on its cotton production, and has already alluded to a potential regional war.

In the case of Armenia, it has not been supported by any of the CSTO member states when it comes to Azerbaijan’s bombardments of Armenian villages and the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Furthermore, Russia, the leader of CSTO and the strategic ally of Armenia (at least on the paper), sells a formidable quantity of weapons to Azerbaijan, amounting to 85 percent of the latter’s overall arms import. In addition, Russian officials release balanced statements when Armenian villages (not those of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh) are bombarded.

It is logical to consider EU economic sanctions as the major challenge facing Belarus. Belarus has no territorial problems with its neighbors and it is not surprising that it has recently adopted a new military doctrine where it is explicitly mentioned that, “The Belarus Army will never, under any circumstances, take part in warfare abroad, unless it has to counter external aggression under allied obligations to Russia.

It is inferred that Belarus considers merely Russia as its military ally. Undoubtedly, such politics can not be in line with the philosophy behind the creation of collective security alliances such as the CSTO.

For Russia, the most important priority is to challenge the existing world order by putting an end to the unipolar world. Russia needs the CSTO as a tool to increase its influence over other members of the organization.

In 2011, Russia succeeded in halting the creation of new foreign military bases on the territory of CSTO states. This new provision is regulated under Article 7 of the CSTO Charter. On the other hand, from a military perspective, the CSTO does not play an important role for Russia either. Even if all its member states were as united as those of the NATO, it would have little added value for Russia in its ability to counterbalance NATO.

Beyond any doubt, the cumulative military strength of the CSTO members excluding Russia is far less than that of Turkey, the second largest NATO army, or even of the UK or France. However, Russia needs the CSTO to show that it is not “a lone wolf” vis-à-vis the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Nonetheless, the most bizarre fact about the CSTO is the relationship of its two Central Asian members – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The absence of a delineated border frequently becomes a reason for clashes and skirmishes, which entail a number of injuries and even deaths. In contrast, despite the historical animosity, there are no serious issues within NATO countries when it comes to border clashes.

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Civilizational differences

Along with the differences in priorities, CSTO states also have civilizational difference. If one were to consider the CSTO member states according to political scientist Samuel Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations" approach, Russia and Belarus, for example, belong to the Orthodox world, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are part of the Muslim world. Azerbaijan is also a part of Muslim civilization and shares a lot of cultural similarities with the Central Asian fellow Turkic states. Therefore, if the large-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumes, no soldier from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would fight for the sake of Armenia.

Experts currently expect that a huge flow of volunteers from various Turkic countries are likely to fight for Azerbaijan, because no treaty or agreement is potent to alter the sentiments of the Kazakhs or the Kyrgyz towards their fellow Turkic nations. In contrast, in NATO, not counting Albania and Turkey, all other member states belong to the Western Christian civilization and share cultural similarities.

Why not dissolve CSTO? The short answer is that Russia needs it for the above-mentioned reason and applies a “carrot and stick policy” to maintain the alliance at least on paper. For instance, the CSTO enables its member states to purchase weapons and armaments from Russia with preferential prices. Also it is difficult to underestimate the efficacy of joint military drills.

Finally, regardless of being ineffective, incoherent and tottering, CSTO is still a legal mechanism for its member states to be allied with Russia and be covered by its nuclear shield. On the other hand, leaving the CSTO is fraught with major economic and political hazards for its members, as each of them has a huge dependency on Russia.

What is the future of the CSTO?

In terms of its effectiveness and cohesion, the CSTO is far from being comparable with NATO. In fact, it can only be a pale replica of NATO, rather than a viable military alliance. So, what has to be done? What should be the first step to make the CSTO more coherent and united?

If CSTO states in general (and Armenia in particular) want CSTO be more coherent and politically potent, then the Charter amendment should be the starting point. The Charter should be more clear and concise, and if necessary, the relevant provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty, especially Article 5, should be simply copy-pasted.

Moreover, the Charter should also specify the territories covered by CSTO legal actions. This is necessary to avoid the misunderstandings that might arise from a possible attack against Crimea, South Ossetia (if it joins Russia as a result of the forthcoming referendum), disputed areas in Central Asia or Nagorno-Karabakh.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.