The CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces: Strengthening a Paper Force?

Posted in Other | 28-Apr-09 | Author: Roger McDermott

"The CSTO rapid reaction force will not deploy beyond the territories of member states"
"The CSTO rapid reaction force will not deploy beyond the territories of member states"
Following the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) summits in Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev told President Nursultan Nazarbayev that only through the pursuit of joint economic projects would these countries be able to withstand the current financial crisis. These summits were somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to close the U.S. air base at Manas, Bishkek, which has been a vital transportation hub for operations in Afghanistan. However, the CSTO declaration of intent on forming rapid reaction forces to counter a range of security threats marked a turning point in the evolution of the organisation. President Medvedev stated that the former CSTO collective forces existed only on paper as they had neither a permanent base nor a joint command, whereas the new rapid reaction force "will not be inferior to NATO forces in terms of combat potential."

Andrey Kokoshin, deputy chairman of the United Russia party and member of the Duma, underscored the importance of this step, which he characterized as "extremely necessary," as a means of promoting stability through the use of a broad range of forces on a collective basis. "Today we see the obvious deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, where the NATO force is failing to cope with the threats posed by the Taleban. The threat of expansion of Islamic extremism - which is infiltrating Central Asia, a zone of Russia's strategic interests - is growing," the deputy noted. Linkage to deterioration in the stability of Afghanistan, and the Russian negative assessment of the NATO mission there, were clearly elements featuring in forming the new force. "Today we are on the verge of a new stage of the CSTO's development, creation of its military component, significant efforts and resources should be invested in this. The CSTO rapid reaction forces need to be equipped with the latest equipment and means of communication that will ensure the possibility of direct contact with the leadership of our countries," Kokoshin said.

The CSTO comprises three regional collective groupings: East European Grouping (Russian-Belarusian), the Caucasus grouping (Russian-Armenian), and the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces in Central Asia (five battalions from Russia, two each from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, one from Kyrgyzstan, and the Russian air base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan). Each CSTO member state (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) plans to provide military and security units for the rapid reaction force. The CSTO charter affirmed the desire for all participating states to abstain from the use or threat of force. Its signatories would not be able to join other military alliances or other groups of states, while aggression against one signatory would be perceived as an aggression against all. Currently the CSTO holds annual military exercises for the CSTO nations to improve inter-organisational cooperation. The largest CSTO military exercise was held in Armenia, "Rubezh 2008" exercises involved a total of 4,000 troops from all CSTO member states conducting operative, strategic, and tactical. The CSTO employs a "rotating presidency" system alternating each year, with Armenia holding the current presidency.

The achievement of the Moscow summit, promoting the new CSTO military and security force, which will minimize the future role of NATO or its members in Central Asia, was developed through careful diplomatic preparation on Moscow's part, closely coordinated with Astana in particular. Medvedev considered Kazakhstan's role as highly significant in developing many of these and other initiatives, such as the anti-economic crisis measures announced in Moscow, having achieved an earlier understanding at the informal CSTO summit in Borovoye, Kazakhstan on December 19, 2008. "Cooperation is developing at a good rate despite the fact that we are in the grip of a crisis, and yet we have such a great number of joint projects that they will allow us not just to withstand this year in bilateral cooperation without slowing down, trying to bring in something new, but even to resolve problems connected with overcoming the consequences of the difficult financial situation," Medvedev suggested. This has magnified the closer defense relationship developing between Kazakhstan and Russia, which may help the latter in its efforts to restore Central Asia as its 'sphere of influence.'

The CSTO Central Axis: Moscow-Astana

Borovoye was arguably the culmination of a process of consolidating bilateral ties between Kazakhstan and Russia that has been underway for some time. There they signed a joint action plan to deepen their countries' ties in 2009-2010. A spokesman for Kazakhstan's presidential administration explained that the plan aimed to develop bilateral strategic partnerships, including 40 practical measures covering all areas of their cooperation, covering politics, energy, space and defense. It may also pave the way to establish a trilateral customs union with Belarus as early as April 2009. "As part of the project to establish a customs union of the three states - Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus - 20 documents have already been initialled, and the remaining 12 will be initialled by March, so that by April we could establish such a union," the Kazakh leader said.

This warming of ties between Astana and Moscow and confluence of defense interests is in contrast to Kazakhstan's official multi-vectored foreign policy, which has often been hailed as a model in the region by avoiding preferring relations with any one state. The harsh reality of the poor condition of its armed forces, despite intensifying its use of foreign defense assistance programs since 9/11, has also begun seeping out. In late December 2008 and early 2009, Kazakhstan's armed forces were hit by a wave of reported deaths of soldiers, officers and contract servicemen. The Committee of Soldiers Mothers called on the state to investigate the various causes, while the NGO has been acting to facilitate the flow of information to the relatives involved, but cooperation from the authorities has been largely unforthcoming.

Problems within Kazakhstan's Military

The culture of routine beatings and bullying within Kazakhstan's armed forces has worsened and has coincided with a rise in the number of cases of racketeering. Lyudmila Kostenko, Chairperson of the Astana Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, sought clarification on the precise circumstances surrounding a number of those deaths. She has worked closely with the parents of a serviceman who died on December 31, 2008 while on guard duties at Otar railroad station. "If it was suicide, the father will receive nothing. Therefore, in this case we should find out whether it was suicide or murder," explained Kostenko.

According to Kostenko such cases are by no means isolated. In another case, a university student, conscripted into the army, survived only after experiencing what he alleged was a nightmare, marked by regular beatings and servicemen stealing his wages. His plight became so straightened that he took out a bank loan of around 600,000 Tenge (US$5,000), in order to ensure his financial survival. What is particularly concerning in this instance is that the serviceman in question alleged the perpetrators were all contract personnel from the airmobile forces in Talkykorgan: these are the very structures receiving most assistance from the U.S. and NATO as Kazakhstan seeks to pursue NATO interoperability in its key formations.

Kazakhstan's MoD predictably avoids public discussion of these cases, or any explanation of the darker side of the conditions endured by its servicemen. Often it is down to NGOs such as the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers to expose evidence of abuse, before the MoD reacts by claiming to initiate investigations. As a result of recent publicity shedding light on these high profile cases, Kazakhstan's Deputy Defense Minister Bolar Dzhanasayev says official investigations are now underway.

Astana Looks to Moscow for Military Assistance

"Currently, the CSTO holds annual military exercises"
"Currently, the CSTO holds annual military exercises"
While promoting a positive image for its armed forces, especially preceding its Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan's authorities far from dealing with the root causes of such institutionalized violence within its military units, prefers to claim advances are being made elsewhere in its armed forces; thus, deflecting criticism from the military leadership. Moreover, while actively cooperating with the U.S. and NATO and displaying a level of interest in developing its military through partnerships with Western states and multilateral security bodies, Astana chooses instead to move closer to Russia. This is nowhere more apparent than in its intention to send its cadets in even larger numbers to Russian military educational establishments. In February 2009, Kazakhstan's Defense Minister, Daniyal Akhmetov declared that more officer cadets will be sent in future to Russia for education and training. This option is attractive for the regime, since unlike its cooperative ties with Western countries, it brings no pressure for political reform or a political gesture in return for access to foreign courses.

Equally, at a time when Russia is drastically reducing the numbers of officers serving in its own armed forces, in order to transform the manning structures and improve command and control efficiency, Kazakhstan is planning to increase the size of its over bloated officer corps. "It is important for us to increase the number of officers in Kazakhstan because we know how many officers we will need in 5-10 years. We know our indicative prospects for the next 10 years that is why I recently met my colleague, Russia's Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov. We agreed that Kazakhstan would prepare new data on the number of officers of new generation to be prepared for us. I think that the number of servicemen or young Kazakh people, who study in Russia, will increase significantly," Akhmetov remarked. Curiously, Akhmetov's comment implied that he meets with his Russian counterpart infrequently; whereas in reality they meet as often as monthly, in another indication of how much the bilateral defense relationship has grown.

The terminology and priorities elaborated by the Kazakhstani military authorities in their dealings with Russia echoes rhetoric employed in their relations with the West. For example, they assign importance to developing airlift capabilities, enhancing troop manoeuvrability and speak of "interoperability." Defense assistance programs with the U.S. and NATO are built around these concepts.

Kazakhstan's Contribution to the New Force

In the aftermath of the CSTO summit in Moscow on February 4, with the declared aim of activating the CSTO Collective Rapid Deployment Forces and making it resemble its NATO counterpart in terms of training and equipment, etc, the forces which Kazakhstan will contribute to this Russian led force structure will be drawn from its airmobile forces: the same earmarked for developing future interoperability with NATO. Additionally, as the country has tried to strengthen its airlift capabilities, it has in fact looked to Russia, rather than the West, for fulfilling these needs. In late January 2009, for example, Kazakhstan received an MI-26 military transport helicopter after it had been upgraded in Russia. Khabar television praised the "legendary" capabilities of the Russian helicopter which will be used in the air defense forces, describing it as a giant aircraft able to carry a 20 tonne cargo, and insert troops at up to distances of 500 kilometres. Of course, facing deep economic crisis and looking to Russia to help its economy in this period of trouble following the devaluation of the Tenge by Kazakhstan's National Bank on February 4, it is clearly more cost effective to upgrade existing platforms at Russian plants.

This economic relationship is vital and bilateral trade reached the milestone of $20 billion in 2008, prompting President Nazarbayev to herald another achievement in cementing Kazakhstan's relations with Russia. On February 5, 2009 Nazarbayev said this trend would continue, "I would like to say that last year the level of trade finally reached $20 billion, which we dreamt about. It includes both border trade and trade turnover between our countries. There are very many instances of how thousands of Russian and Kazakh companies cooperate in Russia, and interpenetration of investments and capital is taking place in your country, and 20,000 Kazakh young people are studying in Russian universities and cultural exchange continues." The defense and security dynamics of this evolving bilateral relationship are becoming ever more apparent.

CSTO Rapid Reaction forces

During a working visit to Yerevan on March 2, CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha explained that in peacetime these new CSTO forces will be placed under the various national commands and in crisis periods will be transferred under the command of the rapid reaction force, said in Yerevan earlier. Following the CSTO summit in Moscow on February 4 intense consultations followed amongst the CSTO Collective Security Council, the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, secretaries of the National Security Councils, in order to prepare the legal framework necessary to officially form the rapid reaction forces during the Moscow CSTO summit in June 2009. Bordyuzha explained that the force will include two elements. "The army component will be responsible for resolution of armed and border conflicts. The second component - special purpose troops - will be used to combat terrorism and drug traffic," he said in Yerevan. "The CSTO doesn't form the RRF as a counterbalance to NATO forces," he added. Bordyuzha ruled out its use in resolving frozen conflicts such the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

On February 12 Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin clarified at least the mechanism through which the force could be deployed to a future conflict or emergency situation. "In the event that a threat of aggression emerges in respect of CSTO states, as well as in order to quickly react to crisis situations, they would be redeployed in the direction of the threat on the basis of a decision by the Collective Security Council of the CSTO," Karasin said. Yet, significantly he stressed the coordination of foreign policy objectives through the CSTO, while also alluding to cooperation internally over weapons supplies. "Priority has been given to the strengthening of military-technical cooperation and the coordination of foreign policy activities of the CSTO member states," Karasin affirmed.

Force Structure

The precise details on the new rapid reaction forces are undecided. Russia appears set to play the leading role by providing an airborne division and an assault brigade, while Kazakhstan will provide a brigade and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are expected to offer battalions. It is entirely unclear as to either the size or potential involvement within the new structure on the part of Uzbekistan, which has already secured a 'case-by-case' approach to participation and opt outs for emergency ministry and other security bodies. It is likely that Russia's forces will be drawn from the units deployed in Ivanovo and Ulyanovsk, namely the 98th Guards Svir Airborne Division (Ivanovo) and the 31st Guards Independent Order of Kutuzov 2nd Class Assault Landing Brigade (Ulyanovsk). Kazakhstan's brigade will be drawn from its airmobile forces headquartered in Kapchagai, though it is unlikely to involve participation by its western trained peacekeeping brigade (KAZBRIG). This will reduce the potential future options for NATO planning staffs to help develop other formations within Kazakhstan's airmobile forces to achieve the status of NATO interoperability.

It is hardly surprising that disagreements surface between the members of a multilateral organisation. In the case of the CSTO, however, these are less public and open to less debate. Nonetheless, fissures do exist, not least over the thorny issue of the force size and the relative contributions from each member. While the CSTO rapid reaction forces existed on paper, each member essentially offered a battalion to the overall structure. Now, the activated plans to form the rapid reaction forces, as announced in Moscow on February 4, envisage a clear weighting in favour of Russia.

Uzbekistan: Opt Outs and Reservations

"The closer defense relationship may help Russia to restore Central Asia as its "sphere of influence"
"The closer defense relationship may help Russia to restore Central Asia as its "sphere of influence"
Amongst the other CSTO members Uzbekistan has been vociferous in its stance that equal numbers of servicemen should be provided by the three largest members: Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The friction over this issue, combined the carefully worded opt outs that will apply only to Uzbekistan suggest that in an actual CSTO security operation they could be absent. For example, should a crisis trigger the collective decision to deploy the force, Tashkent may decline to participate on the grounds that Moscow and Astana fail to allow equal numbers of Uzbek servicemen to participate in the operation: the objections are unlikely to emanate from either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan's stance on a range of related issues differed from other CSTO members. There was no preparatory Uzbek involvement in the informal CSTO summit in Borovoye in December 2008, since Tashkent had decided to withdraw from EurAsEc earlier that year their participation was unilaterally withdrawn. At the Moscow CSTO Summit in February, Uzbekistan secured a separate protocol restricting its future participation in CSTO operations. This was downplayed by Russian officials, keen to emphasize the success of the summit and showcase its new rapid reaction force. Andrei Denisov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister said this decision had only reflected Tashkent's "technical" rather than political concerns. "Uzbekistan's position is purely technical. The collective reaction force envisions interaction between different forces and means, including purely military ones, as well as emergency units, counter-terrorist forces, etc. Uzbekistan's statement is related to special components of this interaction in compliance with its national legislation," Denisov stated.

The opt-out signed by Uzbekistan means they will only avail military forces for CSTO operations under certain circumstances, depending on a political decision taken at the time, though its participation in emergency operations or collective efforts to counter illegal migration are currently not on the agenda. Its special services, Emergency Ministry and Drug Control Agency personnel are therefore currently excluded from the CSTO agreement. Consequently, CSTO spokesman Vitaly Strugovets said Uzbekistan's future participation in CSTO operations would need to be coordinated separately. It is likely that behind scenes, the objections and cautious nature of Tashkent's attitude to the new force is more involved and troublesome: open reporting on this would crack any sense of multilateral unity being portrayed.

In fact, the Uzbek reservations could prevent the emergence of the CSTO rapid reaction forces as a fully functioning 'NATO like' structure. These concerns in Tashkent reflect far deeper anxieties in Central Asia about the new military and security structure emerging under Russian dominance. It is also questionable that large forces are required to meet the types of low intensity conflict that could ignite within the regional security environment. The potential for disagreement amongst the members of the force is deeply entrenched and for image building purposes this is currently being underestimated in both official sources and media coverage within the CSTO member states.

Tajikistan: Concerns

There are also tangible differences in Tajikistan's approach to integration within the evolving Russian dominated CSTO. Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon reportedly hesitated before finally making his trip to attend the Moscow CSTO emergency summit, after a statement was issued in early February saying he would not attend. Rakhmon may be looking for ways to extract more money from Moscow in return for the Russian base in Dushanbe which hosts the 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD).

At a bilateral meeting in November 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly explored the possibility of opening a second Russian base, at Ayni. Rakhmon is trying to maximize potential financial dividends from Russia, especially following Moscow's financial package offered to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. There are also some concerns in Dushanbe over the legal framework for the use of the CSTO forces stimulating a more cautious approach. Moreover, given the pressing economic problems facing Tajikistan, it will struggle to meet demands to enact the necessary legislation on the rapid deployment forces in a short space of time. Any further Russian moves towards pressuring Dushanbe to agree additional basing rights in the country for Russian military forces or as part of the CSTO could further exacerbate these tensions within the bilateral relationship.

CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces: Symbolic Value?

Much remains to be decided, smoothed out and clarified ahead of the CSTO summit in June 2009. In many ways, forming the rapid reaction forces raises as many questions for the CSTO members to answer. The various CSTO members all have their own concerns, aims and hopes for the evolution of the new military and security forces. There are indeed some common themes where confluence of viewpoints can be identified. Fear that NATOs mission will ultimately fail in Afghanistan, as well as leaving instability and a security vacuum in the region are linked to the worsening situation in Pakistan. Future "bleed out" of Islamic militancy and extremism from Afghanistan and Pakistan, through Central Asia and southern Russia is seen as just cause for further strengthening collective security efforts almost as an insurance policy against this eventuality.

The CSTO like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) voices shared security rhetoric claiming to assist members in the fight against extremism, terrorism, drug trafficking and other soft security issues. However, there the commonality seems to end, and under this loose amorphous multilateral umbrella of the CSTO, divergent methods and goals appear only too evident. For the dominant partner, Russia, there is much to gain, but these "gains" may be more symbolic than practical. For instance, reflecting Russian security thinking on the theoretical potential for American military basing in the region, no CSTO member can enter such arrangements without first consulting with the other CSTO allies. In practical terms, therefore, any attempt to secure agreement on access to a Central Asian CSTO member state for Western basing would almost certainly raise Moscow's objections, or at least provide an opportunity for Russia to claim its "right" to be consulted on the initiative. Of course, with the impending closure of Manas, the era of America actively scheming behind Russia's back to secure bases in its backyard has effectively ended.

The further strengthening of the CSTO, coupled with the planned closure of Manas, Russia weapon sales to Central Asian states, enhancing regional air defense capabilities and forming the new rapid reaction forces all fits a pattern of what Western observers and experts' term "resurgent Russia." Certainly, Moscow is doing everything possible to reduce the reasons available to its allies in Central Asia to cooperate too closely either with NATO or key Alliance members. Yet, arguably the experience of the Central Asian states itself acts as a powerful motivator to either reduce or at least engage only very cautiously with Western countries in the defense and security spheres. f0

There is an erroneous assumption in Western capitals that these countries left to their own devices will prefer to develop closer security ties with Western countries or with NATO; this is simply mistaken, and Russian diplomacy exploits this hidden factor for its own ends. Uzbekistan learned such lessons harshly, on the receiving end of Western security policy failings. Kazakhstan has recently gone through a longer though similar experience where it has suffered substantial pressure to deploy troops operationally to Afghanistan, as a result of closer defense relations with the West. The leadership of the Kazakhstani MoD now recognizes that contrary to its defense relations with the West, Russia makes no political demands in return for granting access to its military education and training facilities or selling equipment and weapons. The smaller CSTO states, needing foreign defense and security assistance the most since their security threats are more immediate, now appear more open to Russian initiatives.


Russia's geopolitical gains from the CSTO vis-a-vis its relations with the West are also limited in the sense that despite its undoubted ascendency within the CSTO and leading role in the rapid reaction forces, it has failed to secure from any of its CSTO allies support for its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. As the new force comes into existence formally in June 2009 there will be much speculation beyond the region about its aims and capabilities, as well as its meaning in terms of Moscow's security role in Central Asia. Comparisons with the NATO rapid reaction force are singularly unhelpful. The CSTO rapid reaction force will not deploy beyond the territories of member states and is not being constructed as "anti-NATO" nor will it resolve frozen conflicts. How the force could be used, its capabilities and potential may begin to materialize as joint military exercises are conducted. For the time being, at least, it remains a paper force, and if the ambitions of a "resurgent Russia" are pressed too far towards a single command and transformation into a permanent readiness structure, which is dogmatically opposed by Tashkent, the new force could be still born. On the other hand Moscow is keen to activate multilateral contacts between the CSTO and NATO, with a mechanism already in place to interface the CSTO and SCO; while renewed NATO-Russia relations, set to resume following the NATO Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl in April 2009, may pave the way for greater practical security cooperation at the multilateral level.