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International relations

Russian-led CSTO's Kazakhstan mission leaves lingering bootprints

Analysts see short deployment putting Moscow's security stamp on Central Asia

Russian soldiers fold the national flag during a ceremony marking the beginning of the CSTO withdrawal from Kazakhstan in Almaty on Jan. 13.   © Reuters

MOSCOW -- The Russian-led forces that intervened in Kazakhstan's political crisis are set to fully depart the country by this coming Wednesday, but analysts say the mark they made on the region's security architecture could linger significantly longer.

The withdrawal of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) troops began on Thursday, a week after they swiftly deployed to key strategic facilities across a territory the size of Western Europe. "Everything worked like clockwork: fast, coherent and effective," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on TV, according to Reuters.

The first-ever CSTO military intervention is widely seen to have helped Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turn the tide against protests that looked poised to overthrow him. It also prompted skepticism in a West already wary of Russia's military buildup on the Ukrainian border. But some experts say the mission has left little doubt over the identity of the main security power in Central Asia.

"The crisis in Kazakhstan has shown that there is no alternative to Russia when it comes to the issue of regional security," Stanislav Pritchin, a senior research fellow at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Nikkei Asia. "The Americans have left the region, the Chinese are primarily interested in trade and investment, and the Turks can't offer anything in terms of stabilizing the situation. Among the major powers in the region, only Russia is willing to take upon itself the responsibility of ensuring the security of its partners."

Taking a much more critical stance, Ingrid Burke Friedman, a fellow at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, appeared to come to a similar conclusion in the journal Foreign Policy.

Noting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's calls for finding "a way forward diplomatically," she wrote, "In practice, Washington's toothless pleas for dialogue are less effective than Russian boots on the ground."

Kazakhstan "illustrates idealistic words alone are insufficient to advance values-based foreign policy," she added. "If the United States wishes to lead with its values, it must first determine what it's willing to fight for and how far it's willing to go."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a special video conference of the CSTO council, held Jan. 10 to discuss the unrest in Kazakhstan.   © Sputnik via Reuters

For now, the CSTO operation looks to have altered perceptions of an organization once dismissed as a mostly symbolic alliance of former Soviet republics.

Founded in 1992, the CSTO consists of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Although the bloc was established to serve as a post-Soviet equivalent of NATO, critics have often accused CSTO members of being reluctant to come to one another's aid. The alliance famously declined to send troops to quell a 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan or back Armenia during its war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the autumn of 2020.

Likewise, the CSTO did little to mediate a series of border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in April 2021.

Viktor Murakhovsky, chief editor of Russia's influential defense journal Arsenal of the Fatherland, told Nikkei Asia that despite these public controversies, the alliance did make genuine progress over the years.

In 2009, the CSTO established a rapid response force. Murakhovsky noted that although there was a visible lack of communication between the participants during the force's early drills, it increasingly began to conduct more frequent and complex exercises. "As a result of these efforts, the coordination among the units in the rapid response force was raised to a very high level," he said.

The CSTO got an opportunity to put its capabilities to the test when protests erupted in Kazakhstan on Jan. 2 due a rapid increase in fuel prices. Although the unrest began in the oil-rich west of the country, it quickly spread to cities and villages nationwide. Initially peaceful demonstrations also quickly turned violent.

The most dramatic clashes occurred in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city and former capital. Protesters set fire to the presidential residence and prosecutor's office, briefly captured the international airport and several administration buildings, and were filmed disarming soldiers and police.

On the evening of Jan. 5, Tokayev requested military assistance from the alliance to help quell what he claimed were "terrorist gangs" sponsored from abroad. Over the next several hours, the leaders of the other CSTO member states held emergency phone consultations to discuss Tokayev's appeal. Shortly after midnight on Jan. 6, the alliance announced that it would send a joint peacekeeping mission "for a limited time period to stabilize and normalize the situation in the country."

Over the next several days, around 2,500 CSTO troops were flown to major cities across Kazakhstan. They were tasked with occupying government buildings, military headquarters, airports, energy facilities and television stations. In a sign of the high stakes, the mission was led by one of Russia's most battle-hardened commanders: Col. Gen. Andrey Serdyukov, who previously spearheaded Moscow's takeover of Crimea in 2014 and commanded Russian forces in Syria.

Blinken contended that the Kazakh authorities alone should have had the "capacity to deal appropriately with protests -- to do so in a way that respects the rights of protesters while maintaining law and order." He said the U.S. had "questions about the nature" of the request for help.

But Pritchin of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies argued that although the CSTO troops did not end up seeing any combat, their arrival "drastically" altered the trajectory of the crisis.

Firstly, he said, the CSTO mission gave a "psychological" boost to the Tokayev government by signaling to Kazakhan's security apparatus that the president had the alliance's support. Secondly, by taking control of key strategic infrastructure, the CSTO troops allowed the government to fully mobilize its forces for a counteroffensive operation.

"There were too many hot spots during the height of the protests, and Kazakh security services couldn't establish the necessary presence everywhere," Pritchin said. "Consequently, the appearance of even 2,500 troops which took control of several important infrastructure sites untied the hands of the Kazakh law enforcement and enabled them to focus on going after the protesters."

Even before the first plane carrying CSTO troops had landed in Kazakhstan on the evening of Jan. 6, Kazakh security forces began clearing demonstrators from the streets of Almaty and other cities. In the days that followed, nearly 10,000 protesters were arrested, according to the Kazakh Ministry of Internal Affairs. By Monday, Tokayev was declaring that constitutional order had been "mostly restored."

The next day, Tokayev announced the completion of the CSTO operation and said the troops would be gone by Jan. 23. On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that CSTO troops had begun transferring control of key state facilities to their Kazakh counterparts, with the exit timetable accelerated.

The CSTO now appears to have a more prominent role in Central Asia that may not diminish anytime soon.

Russian, Kazakh and Belarusian forces hold drills under the CSTO banner near Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan in October 2021.   © Reuters

The primary reason is ongoing instability in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban's return to power in August, the CSTO held several large-scale military exercises in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan while moving to strengthen cooperation with Uzbekistan, a former alliance member bordering Afghanistan. In September, the bloc voted to establish a joint budget for defense-related research and to form a common military police force and courts.

Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned that the situation in Afghanistan "creates risks of exporting terrorism and drugs to the territory of the CSTO states." Most recently, several Russian lawmakers blamed the violence in Kazakhstan on militants from Afghanistan, without offering evidence.

Arsenal of the Fatherland's Murakhovsky said the CSTO has a strong incentive to boost its military presence in Central Asia in order to deter the Taliban and other Afghan Islamist groups.

"There is always a potential threat that militants will come across the southern border and form terrorist cells within CSTO members," he said. "Since such a potential threat exists, we must prepare beforehand -- mobilize new forces, strengthen information exchange, hold new types of exercises, and so on."

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