August 20, 2010. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko(left) , Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian at unofficial summit of the leaders of the CSTO member states in Yerevan, Armenia © PanARMENIAN Photo / Davit Hakobyan
This was the question addressed by Yulia Nikitina of MGIMO (the Moscow State Institute of International Relations) during her policy memo presentation and discussion at the annual two-day PONARS conference.
Her talk was actually about "How the CSTO Can (and Cannot) Help NATO" -- given the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is on its way to becoming a missed opportunity for NATO-CSTO cooperation," she said -- and she wasn't really delving into the nature of the CSTO per se and why NATO may not wish this cooperation.
But naturally, cooperation does hinge on the nature of the CSTO and its intentions.
Nikitina's talk came just as a summit of the CSTO was completed, and a statement was released that the security group did not plan to add more troops to Tajikistan, but planned to help Tajikistan "strengthen its border" in light of 2014.
To put this in perspective, think of 6,000 Russian troops already in Tajikistan, considerable wrangling still over how much Russia will pay Tajikistan for its base there and other arrangements, and a border more than 1,000 kilometers long.
The numbers of troops available in the CSTO -- which Uzbekistan has not joined -- is not officially released, but here's what Nikitina has to say:
In 2012, hard security issues disappeared from the agenda of potential CSTO-NATO cooperation. They were replaced by an emphasis on conflict resolution and crisis management, to which in 2013 peacekeeping was added. But what specifically can the CSTO offer in the fields of crisis management and peacekeeping?
The CSTO has four types of collective forces. These include two regional groups of military forces (Russia-Belarus and Russia-Armenia), prepared to react to external military aggression; a 4,000-strong Collective Rapid Deployment Force for Central Asia; a 20,000-strong Collective Rapid Reaction Force (both of which have been designed to react to crises short of interstate conflicts); and collective peacekeeping forces, including about 3,500 soldiers and military officers and more than 800 civilian police officers (exact figures for all types of forces are not publicly available).
So the last "collective peace-keeping forces" which isn't the same thing as the Collective Rapid Deployment Force, has 4,300 troops, but roughtly a fifth of them are civilian police officers. Interesting.
Basically, my question was this (with some explanation in parentheses):
In 2010, during the pogroms in southern Kyrgyzstan in Osh and Jalalabad, then-acting President Otunbayeva reportedly asked the CSTO to come in and help restore order. (At least 400 people were killed in these ethnic riots, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands displaced, many temporarily to neighbouring Uzbekistan.)
All along before then, the CSTO said they were not designed to handle internal unrest, and that was not their purpose, but they were asked anyway, and we know there were emergency meetings about this question in Kyrgyzstan.
I had understood from talking to some diplomats that Uzbekistan opposed having the CSTO deployed in its "back yard" so to speak (as they disliked the encroachment of what they saw as a Russian-dominated entity - and that's why they refuse to join it - in a neighbour that already had several Russian bases and at that time the US base as well in Manas.)
So the CSTO was not deployed in Kyrgyzstan (and I could add that the effort to get some 50 police from the OSCE countries to deploy for "technical assistance" to the Kyrgyz authorities was also pretty much demolished because the all-powerful mayor of Osh did not want foreign meddling and Bishkek did not have control over him).
In any event, after these tragic events, this question was further discussed and in due course, you heard CSTO head Borduzhya and even Foreign Minister Lavrov speak of adding the competency to address mass unrest to the tasks of the CSTO.
Will they? I also asked if these troops could be deployed in Tajikistan, where an armed group was involved in clashes with law enforcement in which 30 or more were killed last year.
Likely there are others more knowledgeable about the details but I think it's good to ask Russians directly about this because they don't seem to want to define either what "extremism" is or what "unrest" is or anything about this.
I expected, since there was a news story out in Izvestiya, that this would get a "normal" answer, much like the last paragraph of this article, which reflected the official view:
Vladimir Putin also proposed using the CSTO forces in the capacity of peace-keeping forces.
This was first discussed after June 2010, during the period of inter-ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, when CSTO forces could not interfere in the conflict due to the absence of legal mechanisms.
Of course, peace-keeping and unrest-stopping are really different things as the UN endlessly learns to its chagrin -- but I thought I'd ask.
That Izvestiya piece made it sound like it was a mere absence of legal mechanisms, although we knew it was both an absence of political will (on Russia's part) and an unwillingness to have deployment encroaching sovereignty on others' part.
In any event, Nikitina replied with that tone of prickly, moral-equivalency high dudgeon that seems to characterize so many interactions with the official Russian intelligentsia these days.
She said she often got this sort of question and "just couldn't understand it". After all, no one expected NATO to go to the south of France in 2005, she noted tartly. You can't just have military alliances going hither and yon, and so on.
It wasn't the sort of format where I could object that NATO wasn't invited to the south of France, and 400 people weren't killed in the south of France, and half a million didn't flee over the border, either.
In any event, she said she didn't know about Uzbekistan objecting, but in fact, she said, Belarus objected. (I had never heard that before).
Belarus said that it would be hard to tell the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks apart, Nikitina noted. I would like to think that what Belarus meant by this was not that "all Central Asians look alike" but that civilians and marauders would be hard to tell apart.
Of course, you could start just by separating, oh, the men riding around in police or army vehicles that mysteriously seemed to become available to them, wielding guns also mysteriously obtained, and stop them from going into places with women in scarves carrying young children and fleeing in panic. That should be fairly easy to "tell apart". In any event, urban hand-to-hand combat is a difficult setting and I'm not going to tell the military or police their business. I really don't know if Russian-led troops swooping into Osh might have made a difference -- especially if they didn't have a robust Chapter 7 equivalent sort of mandate to actually battle the pogromshchiki. I can't imagine that the attitude toward Russian-led forces would be intrinsically welcoming, either, although Otunbayeva, herself educated in Moscow, reportedly did ask.In any event, I also asked Nikitina if 4000 troops was enough to do the job. She didn't answer. The thrust of what she replied -- and I await the videotape -- was that while response to disorders and/or extremist attacks was now in the remit of the CSTO, it was mainly about inter-state interactions.
She also stressed that the involvement of the CSTO in a domestic matter could only be at the invitation of the country itself.
I do think we are not back to a Warsaw Pact type of situation where the need to protect peace-loving fraternal socialist peoples serve as an excuse to do something like invade Czechoslovakia.
Of course, what we don't know is what would happen if there was a situation such as has occurred in Kyrgyzstan, where mobs end up toppling corrupt governments, sometimes it seems with some very skilled help (those sharpshooters you can see in some videos skilfully hiding behind trees and moving to scale fences didn't get those bazookas out of a tulip bed).
i.e. if Russian special forces stealthily took down a government, mixing in with mobs, and then whistled for the CSTO to put down any one objecting.
Or a scenario like in Moscow itself in August 1991, where one government leader is spirited far away and kept under house arrest, and an illegitimate coup plotters' committee appears, and then another government leader comes on tanks and defeats the coup plot but deposes the leader taken into exile. See, any one of those figures could be whistling for a CSTO. Then what? Which are the fraternal peace-loving peoples?
Nikitina seemed to indicate that invitations for such deployment might only be a remote possibility.
There are other troubles -- Uzbekistan isn't in the CSTO, and Nazarbayev, head of Kazakhstan didn't come to the summit, even though he wasn't sick and ended up having meetings at home and then going to Monaco. Monaco?! What's that about? "I could have come and chatted with all of you about what we're going to do when hordes of terrorists come pouring over the Afghan border into our countries and destabilize us in 2014, but instead, I chose to go speak to the Prince."
President Nazarbayev’s presence was important; after all the foundation for the military component of the CSTO is the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CRRF). These are the divisions that will actively participate in various operations. For now, the lion’s share of the CRRF are made up of Russian and Kazakh soldiers.
All of this requires further watching and research. Where have there been Russian "peace-keepers"? Well, in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia.
How would the CSTO peace-keep? Like ECOWAS or the African Union?
Thinking of all the cases of violent unrest in Central Asia in the last 20 years, Andijan stands out as the worst or among the worst -- and Uzbekistan is not part of the reaction force or the peace-keeping force (I'd love to know more about how they differ). Kyrgyzstan is part of the CSTO, but there is already this precedent where it wasn't deployed because of objections and difficulties.
So where would the CSTO be deployed? Tajikistan?
CSTO summit 2010, photo by PanARMENIAN.