Cargo aircrafts are being unloaded; track and wheeled armored vehicles equipped with electronic warfare systems are advancing towards the old capital of Kazakhstan; military personnel are giving out orders. It is January 9th and the 2,500 peacekeepers sent by the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have just landed in Almaty, following the country’s call for help to stop the unrest. The deployment represents an important development for the alliance as it is the first time in history that it has chosen to intervene in an armed conflict, having largely followed a strategy of inaction up until now.
2022 Kazakh protests
Rapidly following the New Year, violence and protests erupted across in three major cities in Kazakhstan. Initially sparked by anger of local populations over an increase in fuel prices, it was exacerbated by a pre-existing discontent with a government accused of widespread corruption and inefficiency in the face of inequalities and unemployment. The riots quickly intensified to include forced entry and significant damage to government buildings, deadly confrontations between civilians and security forces, as well as explosions.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev responded to the escalating situation by declaring a state of emergency and launching what he called a national anti-terrorist operation by deploying military personnel ordered to kill without warning. Within his retaliation, he further vowed to act as tough as possible and rejected the plea from the international community to resolve the conflict through peaceful means.
The role of the CSTO
Although it began as a regional agreement in 1992, the CSTO expanded to officially become a military alliance a decade later. It brings together forces from six former Soviet states: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Primarily in response to an increased US presence in Central Asia, the organization built up its capabilities to create a CSTO rapid response force and peacekeeping contingent that could deploy under a UN mandate or without one in its member states.
The peacekeeping unit totals approximately 3,600 troops from the different countries. Its main responsibilities are not strictly combat-related, but rather focus on post-conflict tasks centering around de-escalation and stabilization activities, such as ceasefire monitoring. Additionally, the organization’s expansion allowed the enactment of the legal foundations, which established two Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, alongside providing several advantages for its members such as the possibility to purchase weapons at Russian domestic rates and veto powers over new military bases in member states.
While the CTSO is a military organization, it also serves the larger purpose of defending authoritarian governments in part by championing a culture of integration. It operates based on a rotating presidency, assumed this year by Armenia, but the core of its decision-making is heavily driven by Russia whose contribution to the overall CSTO budget in 2015 was 50%. According to its charter, the entity’s primary objectives are to strengthen peace, ensure regional and international security and stability, as well as to protect on a collective basis the members’ independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. All CTSO activities are guided by prioritizing political over military means, voluntary participation and non-interference in affairs of national jurisdiction of its states.
A history of inaction
Since becoming a military entente, the CTSO has been criticized by many for having a track record characterized largely by inaction and unresponsiveness in the face of important crises. Citing instances such as the organization’s failure to intervene in the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the widespread ethnic unrest in 2010, or the 2020 protests in Kyrgyzstan, as well as during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last year.
Within this argument, there are important nuances to be made regarding how the deployment of CSTO forces functions. Decisions to intervene are mainly derived from Article 4 and 5 of the Treaty’s charter, which states that the CSTO is obliged to protect member-states only from threats from third countries or actors. In other words, the peacekeeping forces can only come in when and if the territory or sovereignty of a member is being threatened by an external force or in cases of foreign aggression. Simultaneously, often times countries will simply not want the CSTO nor Russia to intervene in intrastate conflicts as they may fall under domestic affairs.
In the case of the 2010 inter-ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan, where the capital requested the assistance of the CSTO, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev explained that the Treaty’s decision to turn down this plea was due to the events being a matter of internal affairs rather than a foreign attack. He further blamed the violence on the Kyrgyz government, which failed and was unwilling to “address the needs of the people.”
Similarly, during the 2021 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the CSTO also refused Armenia’s call for intervention since the war did not cross international boundaries and did not qualify in their view as a threat from a third country. It is clear from these reasonings, that the organization’s representatives simply did not consider these disputes as a sufficient threat to their own security. Consequently, to solve the latter, Russia, at last, deployed its own peacekeeping units to Armenia which succeeded in establishing a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners.
Kazakhstan as the exception: Why?
In the early hours of January 9th, the CSTO’s leadership led this year by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan approved Kazakhstan’s plea for assistance following intense consultations between the Russian and Belarusian governments. As a result, 2,500 CSTO peacekeepers alongside additional Russian troops were deployed and tasked with securing strategic facilities such as the Almaty airport, major energy sites, and Russia’s cosmodrome. It is important to stress that the forces were not sent to partake in Tokayev’s national counter-terrorism operation.
Several elements made Kazakhstan the exception of almost thirty years of non-intervention from the organization. Firstly, the conflict exhibited apparent differences than others in that the country it involved also happens to share a 7,000 kilometer border with Russia. The proximity of the two countries offered great danger that the protests could very well resonate and spread in not only Russia but also across the region. Keeping close ties with the country is also important for Moscow as it depends on its Cosmodrome as the primary launch base for its manned space missions. Moreover, the nature of the crisis differed from previous ones in that it did not only include a bottom-up aspect, but it also had a high-level dimension of a power struggle between the current and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Although Nazarbayev stepped down from his role in 2019, he continued to exert influence across the state as chairman of the Security Council. As such, through their intervention, Russia and its allies wanted to give legitimacy to Tokayev’s government and help it hold on to power. This also represented an opportunity for Russia to reassert its authority in another former Soviet state. Lastly, the way that the conflict was framed by Tokayev was different in that he successfully portrayed the threat to his country as terrorism, calling protesters terrorists trained abroad so that it could invoke Article 4 of the CSTO charter.
The CSTO’s peacekeeping mission lasted less than a week, with troops allegedly announced to be retrieved by January 13th. Although an important aspect of the rhetoric behind the organization’s decision was to give authority to the current regime, it may have done the opposite. The arrival of foreign personnel in Kazakhstan risked sending the wrong signal to the local population that not only was their government too weak to resolve the situation by itself, but the move could also be perceived as a violation of their sovereignty at the expense of Tokayev remaining in power. The upcoming months will be telling in monitoring if an anti-Russian sentiment spreads among Kazakhs, similarly to what happened in Ukraine in a different context and has lasted for many years.
The choice to interfere also carries future implications with it. On the one hand, it has undoubtedly created a precedent for other authoritarian leaders in Central Asia in that the Treaty may be used as a tool in sustaining their influence over their populations in the long term. On the other hand, it remains unclear if the airborne Russian troops, which were sent in addition to CSTO’s peacekeepers, are still in the country and if so how long they will remain. On this matter, history is telling: in looking at instances such as in the region of Moldova, Russian soldiers come in and they rarely, if ever, leave.