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CSTO anniversary and challenges from Middle East

Photo: odkb-csto.org

Regional collective security system in the post-Soviet area marks two anniversaries. 25 years ago, on May 15, 1992, six former Soviet republics signed a Collective Security Treaty in Tashkent. 10 years later, the Treaty turned into an Organization. At present, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has six member-countries. Joining the Treaty in 1993, Azerbaijan and Georgia left it later in 1999. Uzbekistan decided to observe the process of military and political integration of the CSTO countries.

Despite its double anniversary, the CSTO has not turned into a full-fledged military and political bloc, unfortunately. It is inferior to the NATO, the world’s most powerful military-political alliance, by many parameters, including internal solidarity and consolidation of forces. It is time to rethink the role and place of CSTO in the Eurasian space. Among others, challenges to CSTO countries from the southern flank make the organization do it.

Armenia remains the only CSTO member in the Caucasus. For known reasons, Armenia’s government cannot make public claims to the Organization too frequently and too harshly, but they still regularly express discontent with CSTO’s “incomprehensible” policy on Karabakh. Public and political society in Armenia harshly criticizes the organization, even calling it abortive and useless sometimes.

Armenia stakes on development of bilateral military alliance with Russia, understanding some CSTO countries will further prefer credit and economic ties with Baku to the alliance with Yerevan. Meanwhile, Russia is keen both to enhance the military relations with Armenia and to have the Moscow-led collective security system on the border with NATO-member Turkey.

Russia does not seek permanent confrontation of the military blocs in the South Caucasus. A system approach is important for Russia’s long-term interests in the region that is located across the Black Sea and the Caspian Basin. Only a collective security system can ensure this, unlike bilateral cooperation, even if it is as deep and progressive as the Russian-Armenian one.

CSTO’s collective approach in the South Caucasus amid protracted Karabakh conflict and close relations of some member-countries with Turkey and Azerbaijan is maximum complicated, if not impossible, now and will be maximum complicated in the visible future too. In the meantime, Russia needs to act now keeping in mind two factors: NATO membership of internally conflicted Turkey and permanent terror threats from the Middle East.

Yerevan’s stance on “the Turkish factor” in the region and possible destabilization in the South Caucasus from Ankara’s actions generally coincide with Moscow’s assessments. Still, there are some differences. The Kremlin does not consider Turkey’s growing influence on Azerbaijan as a serious threat to its interests in the Caucasus. Turkey’s policy in that “oil and gas-bearing” country is not perceived as a challenge to Russia’s southern borders. Nor has Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan’s recent warning (in an interview with Interfax) of Ankara’s actions “near borders of Dagestan” impressed Moscow. Turkey has no military base in the “continental” part of Azerbaijan. It has a kind of “expedition corps” of Turkish military in Nakhijevan, Azerbaijan’s enclave. There is a big number of Turkish military advisers and instructors throughout Azerbaijan, including along the frontline in the Karabakh conflict zone. Recall that Azerbaijan undertook a commitment not to allow any foreign military bases in its territory. The given ban is formal for Turkey, indeed.

Although the Armenian minister’s assessment concerning the threats from NATO-member Turkey to Russia are certainly exaggerated, they should not be neglected either. Vigen Sargsyan is among the most probable candidates for the post of prime minister in the spring of 2018 when the country will finally shift to the parliamentary system of government from the current semi-presidential one. When this happens, the prime minister will be defining the foreign and domestic policy of Armenia in conformity with the amendments made to the constitution earlier.

The relations of Turkey and Azerbaijan is the South Caucasus’ objective reality which Russia is not going to torpedo. The developing military ties of Ankara and Tbilisi amid Georgian authorities’ aspirations towards NATO membership is another case. However, Armenia is not encouraged with the risk of being involved into sophisticated relations of Russia and Georgia, especially as Georgia strives to NATO.

Armenia’s political leadership more and more expresses its discontent with the supplies of Russian strike systems to solvent Azerbaijan. Armenia’s complaints are logical, as supply of defensive arms to Azerbaijan that has not abandoned its plans to settle the Karabakh conflict by force is another destabilizing factor for the region. Yet, this sensitive issue of the Russian-Armenian relations has a “seamy side.” More than 80% of Azerbaijan’s arsenal are the Soviet/Russian military products. Arming Baku, Moscow removes the risk of Azerbaijan’s falling into the area of NATO’s influence for decades to come. Azerbaijan is building its armed forces on Turkish standards that, in turn, emerge from the NATO ones. However, Azerbaijan’s troops are “doomed to” fight with Russian weapons, which makes certain corrections to the dynamics of Turkish-Azerbaijani allied relationships.

However, this will hardly comfort Armenia. Meantime, Russia promotes its interests in the conflict-generating region trying to relieve Armenia’s anxiety as much as possible. Look at what Georgia’s troops are armed with despite the country’s aspiration for NATO and look at the defensive and offensive systems, including Iskander missile systems, of the Armenian army. This call is addressed, first of all, to the Armenian adepts of Euro-Atlantic partnership who keep urging a U-turn from “wild super power” to “civilized West.” They claim that NATO will easily replace Russian weapons if Yerevan turns to Brussels and Washington…

Even Turkey still lacks long-range systems of air defense, while Armenia was supplied with such systems yet several years ago. The country with 65-year-long NATO membership has not acquired up-to-date systems of air defense and now has to discuss supply of Triumph S-400 missile systems with Russia. There is much skepticism about the Russian-Turkish deal on Triumph systems, but hypothetical deployment of these systems to Turkey will not affect Armenia’s security in the region.

As to the terror threats coming from the Middle East, joint combat alert mission of Armenia and Russia will contribute to defense of CSTO’s southern borders. Russia’s 102nd military base is deployed in the territory of Armenia near the border with Turkey, a United System of Air Defense is being developed currently, a United Group of Forces of Armenia and Russia developed in the area near the Turkish border, the two countries’ military are serving at once on two “Middle Eastern” borders of Armenia with Turkey (Gyumri, Armavir, Artashat) and Iran (Meghri).

Talks on expediency of modernizing and expanding the capacities of the Russian 102nd base have intensified in Yerevan. The base has been modernized for a long time already with new models of weapons and armory. As for expansion of the functions, it is still uncertain.

Territorial expansion is considered unlikely both in Armenia and Russia. A new base or a “branch” of the 102nd base in another point in Armenia is not on agenda. The frontier (geographically close to the Middle East) deployment of Russian troops in Armenia may be improved qualitatively.

At present, infrastructure of the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia is used in Syria only as a reserve channel of humanitarian supplies. Military supplies to Syria go via Black Sea – Mediterranean route that will work for indefinitely long period of time, since the Russian – Turkish relations have been normalized after the known incident in November 2015. Development of the situation in Syria, particularly, the recent deals to establish four areas of de-escalation requires new approaches, fresh ideas including with the help of CSTO’s capacities in the Caucasus.

Noteworthy that Middle East Operative Center has been created on the basis of the 102nd military base in Armenia. The name and the “content” of the center are to be elaborated yet. Its major function is to supply manpower for Russia’s future operation in Syria (in cooperation with other CSTO countries or without them) in the post-war period. Peacemaking requires hard work and qualified specialists whether it is concentrated in the de-escalation zone or goes wider in the future. CSTO conditional school of “operatives” for deployment to Syria may be replenished, for instance, with Armenian cadets. It will not be hard to find such in this South Caucasian republic, given that many Syrian Armenians have found shelter there. Brilliant knowledge of the region’s specifics and Arabic, “good terrain orientation” and other valuable skills can be improved at Middle East Operative Center.

There are also some other ideas of using the “Middle Eastern” base of Russia in Armenia that cannot be made public, unfortunately. It is quite expedient that the Armenian military command and political leadership that seeks to increase CSTO’s capacities in the Caucasus have suggested their own vision of expanding the capacities of the regional collective security system and Russian-Armenian strategic partnership on Syria. The CSTO anniversaries are additional motivation to do it.

EADaily ’s Middle East Bureau

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