The conundrum of our geopolitical times

Members of Kyrgyzstan's special operations unit march during in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military exercise outside Almaty

Members of Kyrgyzstan's special operations unit march during in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military exercise outside Almaty

Published Nov 27, 2022


Johannesburg - Simmering cracks in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) showed no sign of healing when this week’s alliance summit in the Armenian capital of Yerevan was dominated by the ultimate failure of member-states to sign a joint declaration.

The CSTO is an inter-governmental military alliance similar to Nato, and it is made up of six former member-states of the Soviet Union. The six are Russia – by far the biggest alliance member, as well as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan.

The alliance has its origins in the now-defunct Soviet Armed Forces, which ceased to exist in 1992 when the Cold War ended. The majority of the former alliance partners are a flurry of the former Soviet Union republics who gained independence at the turn of the 90s. The armed forces of the respective independent states are remnants of the Cold War era.

The organisation’s main objective is to “strengthen the national and collective security of its members through military-political cooperation, coordinating foreign policy and establishing cooperation mechanisms”.

Furthermore, the CSTO, which has over the years struggled to grow but its existence nonetheless still important in geopolitics, faces a stiff test of survival after Armenia's Prime Minister refused to append his signature to the joint communique and was seen sulking and distancing himself in official photo-shoots to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Similar to Nato’s Article Five, which refers to “an attack on one is an attack on all”, the CSTO Charter has Article Four, which establishes that “an aggression against one signatory would be perceived as an aggression against all”.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was seething with anger at the entire alliance, accusing the CSTO of failing to help his country in its ongoing conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Some 200 people have died in the conflict since September. Last month, Putin met with the leaders of the two countries to diffuse the situation, although Western observers claim that the Russian president’s mediation efforts were simply a public relations exercise.

Earlier this year, Armenia attempted to invoke the CSTO’s collective-defence provision contained in Article Four without any success.

At a tense Summit this week, Pashinyan criticised the “effectiveness of the alliance”, where Russia’s military supremacy is unparalleled. An angry Pashinyan lashed out: “Right up to today, we have not managed to decide on a CSTO response to Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia.”

He added: “These facts do grave harm to the image of the CSTO both inside our country and outside its borders.”

Pashinyan’s subsequent refusal to sign a draft declaration from the summit did not come as a complete surprise. He argued that the draft declaration, which was intended to express solidarity with Armenia, “did too little to oppose Azerbaijan’s aggression”.

He added: “These are very important issues. We should consult on issues that will ensure long-term peace in the region.”

Later in a photo-shoot, Pashinyan backed his earlier criticism of the alliance and a snide reference to Russia by conspicuously standing far from Putin, leaving a notable gap that caused a stir. The Kremlin played the entire saga down, referring to earlier when the summit began as both Putin and Pashinyan appeared to happily shake hands multiple times. The Kremlin also sought to defuse the drama by stating that both leaders held private bilateral talks after the summit and that nothing much ought to be read from the photo shoot.

Over the years, the CSTO has experienced a myriad of challenges, particularly economically. But the 1999 withdrawal from the alliance by three member-states not only dealt a blow to its exponential growth but also the plain public court of opinion. The three former members who quit the same year are Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

The CSTO has struggled to attract new members from across the Eurasian region, and the Ukraine war has exacerbated its potential to woo new member-states. Currently, the CSTO’s Parliamentary Assembly has three member-states. They are Serbia, Afghanistan and the Union State (Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia).

In recent times, there have been reports that Iran could join the military bloc. If that materialises, that would make Iran the first non-former Soviet State to join the alliance.

The aggressive expansion of Nato eastwards, which is credited with triggering the ongoing Ukraine war, also appears to discourage many ex-Soviet Union states from aligning themselves with the CSTO. The public diplomacy constantly pushed by Nato and its expression of a willingness to lure as many states around Russia as possible seems to work effectively.

Over and above, Nato’s collective riches and networks and its global dominance in geopolitics make it too difficult to compete against.

Since Nato declared that it would not shut its door on any applicant who qualifies to join their alliance, Finland reacted to the Ukraine war by submitting its application to join Nato. Finland shares a more than one thousand-kilometre border with Russia and relations between the two countries have always been cordial and characterised by a peaceful co-existence.

Sweden, too, has submitted its application to join Nato and publicly, like Finland, indicating their national anxiety and security concerns since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February. However, addressing the unity of the CSTO at their summit this week, Putin stressed the unity of the former Soviet republics “as an alliance sharing a common history”.

Putin said that the CSTO member-states “are firmly united by the common history of their victory in the Great Patriotic War”.

Referring to the summit, Putin said: “It is rarely possible to reach an agreement on all issues, but overall, the work was very intensive and useful.”

He also promised to supply the CSTO with modern weapons and military training. Every year, all members of the CSTO embark on joint military exercises in Eurasia. During the tense CSTO summit in Armenia this week, Putin also briefed his alliance partners about the “special military alliance”, as Moscow describes the Ukraine war. A spokesperson for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, told a media conference on Wednesday: “The Russian President had the opportunity to briefly inform his colleagues on the sidelines of the summit as well. They interacted in various formats about what is going on in the context of the special military operation.”

The CSTO is quite crucial for Moscow, particularly in the wake of a barrage of western sanctions and political pressure to isolate Russia from the international community over the Ukraine war. The sanctions against Russia have not been as successful as initially expected. Moscow has also leveraged its wealth of oil and gas upon which most of Europe depends, and as the cold winter breaks, Russia has strategically reduced its gas supply to Western European countries that are Nato members and military arms suppliers to Ukraine.

The war is shifting, as expected, with the arrival of the winter season in Europe. It has also lasted much longer than initially thought it would, and lately, talk of negotiations to end the war appear to be the only way to a peaceful future. So far, Nato has not been “directly involved in the war”. It has mainly participated by bank-rolling Ukraine and arming and training its soldiers to defeat Russia.

Any confrontation between Nato and Russia would undoubtedly trigger a global conflict – World War III – which would be a catastrophic nuclear war. The CSTO member-states would most probably line up alongside Russia by triggering Article Four of their Charter, while Nato will most certainly line up its 30-member-states and other partners, particularly in the Global North. We are going through perilous geopolitical times. Anything, and I mean everything, good or bad, is possible.