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After more than a year since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, the relations between Russia and the West have stooped to their lowest level since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

With no end to the crises in sight, both sides have followed up on their increasingly hostile rhetoric by ramping up their combat readiness and conducting military exercises in the border regions, summoning the ghosts of the Cold War, long thought to be a relic of the past.

With NATO forces getting ready to increase their military presence in the Baltic[1] and Caucasus[2], Russia has been working on invigorating its own collective security alliance, aptly named ‘Collective Security Treaty Organization’ in an attempt to counterbalance what Russia perceives as ‘encirclement’ by the West.

Although already more than 20-years-old, the organization remained mostly in the background following Russia’s rapprochement with the West in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Following the developments in mid-2000’s, culminating with war in Georgia in 2008, and finally escalating with the crises in Ukraine, Russia has been attempting to kick-start the organization again, in the attempt to consolidate the military block and provide a counterbalance against the West.

The situation in Ukraine only accelerated the policy which was already well under way. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has clearly asserted that it intends to become a global power once again. Viewed in this light, the decision to strengthen the CSTO, and challenge NATO in Europe and elsewhere, comes as no surprise.

The question, however, remains whether CSTO  capable of becoming an Eastern alternative to NATO, or is it not more than a cordon sanitair , designed to create a buffer zone around Russia and serve as a tool for tightening the grip on its neighboring countries and securing its Russian hegemony in the region.

At the moment, CSTO suffers from the same two problems as NATO does – it has one dominant power carrying the entire financial and military burden, with many members free riding and offering little to the alliance.
Secondly, it struggles to find a legitimate justification for its existence. Unlike NATO, however, CSTO has one more fundamental problem – the members of the organization never truly created a security community and its members have different visions, often quite conflicting, about what CSTO should look like.

While Russia is content with building up its military infrastructure and using territories of CSTO member states to station troops and project power, other member states often see the organization as a tool to maintain their authoritarian regimes in place, or suppress ethnic tensions[3], leftover after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Such a stark contrast in the way members see the organization creates an atmosphere of distrust, which cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Conflicting vision aside, CSTO has one thing going for them – Russia is the successor state to a former superpower, its geopolitical location and leadership experience alone guarantee its importance in the global arena.

By negotiating a series of strategic military deals with CSTO allies, such as building new airbases in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia by 2016, Russia has managed to fortify its presence in these countries, and their respective regions, and diminish NATO influence. Despite the economic setbacks, Russia is yet increasing its military spending, and plans to finish its ambitious military modernization program by 2020[4], demonstrating its commitment to playing an increasingly important role globally.

To further strengthen the cohesion of the military block, CSTO has stepped up its plans for a collective air force[5], cyber warfare division and has started planning how to unite the entire command structure of the organization under a single body, which would improve the deployment speed and coordination of its collective rapid deployment forces.

The changed reality of an increasingly multi-polar world has led Russia to adopt a more pragmatic and realist foreign policy, structured around increasing military power and re-establishing its influence over the former Soviet Republics. The CSTO, although nominally a military alliance of the willing, is yet clearly a project absolutely dominated by Russia, serving primarily its strategic security interests

On numerous occasions, it has failed to intervene at the behest of its partner states, most notably in an internal conflict in Kyrgyzstan[6], under the justification that it is an internal issue. Furthermore, it opted not to provide significant support for Armenia in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, which can in part be explained by possible Russia motivation to keep the ‘frozen conflict’ unresolved, tightening Armenia’s absolute security dependence on Russia.

In the short term, Russia is achieving its objectives and consolidating its influence, utilizing the resources of CSTO to counter NATO aspirations in Central Asia and Southern Caucasus. By creating conditions for a deeper integration, it opened the way for creating an effective collective security force, with a similar structure to its Western counterpart.

In the long-term, however, treating allied states as satellites, or in the best case protectorates, instead of partners, which has been the staple of Soviet, but also Russian, foreign policy, will likely cause resentment and perhaps even open hostility among the member states of the organization sooner or later. If CSTO is to become a legitimate organization, Russia will need to adopt a less colonial and more cooperative mindset; otherwise it would likely repeat the mistakes of its predecessor.

Image Source: Topwar.ru

[1] http://ir-ia.com/news/nato-plans-to-increase-military-exercises-in-baltic-region/

[2] http://www.eurasianet.org/node/71836                                                            

[3] http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67966

[4]http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/putin-reaffirms-commitment-to-military-modernization-in-speech-to-officers/510601.html

[5] http://itar-tass.com/en/world/768382

[6] http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/08/20/idUSLDE67J1KU