The main aim of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as the name suggests, is to ensure security in its member-states (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). There are a number of troublesome zones that require increased CSTO focus in the region where the countries of this organization are located.
At present, these areas include, first and foremost the nations of Central Asia and their border with Afghanistan, which is perpetually engulfed in a war and overrun with terrorists. Nonetheless there are other member-states that the CSTO ought to “keep an eye on,” for instance, the border shared by Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the decades-long simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict flares up from time to time, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, still threatened by a clash with Georgia. Another area that requires attention is PRC’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which shares a border with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The separatist sentiments run high among residents of XUAR and extremist ideas are widely propagated, and every so often there are terror attacks against the Chinese government. Another source of disquiet in Central Asia is the conflict between India and Pakistan that erupts with new intensity from time to time, with the latest flare-up occurring in February 2019. This is also a serious problem for the CSTO. For some time now, there are some a priori concerns about the border between Belarus and Ukraine. Thus far, there have not been any serious incidents at that frontier. However, in September 2018, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered to boost security there due to an increased risk of criminals and arms shipments crossing the border.
Nonetheless, the most volatile places are still the nations of Central Asia that share the border with Afghanistan: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. There is unrest within these countries, as radicalization of their populations stems from a fairly low level of socio-economic development; religious and ethnic conflicts that flare up intermittently, and memories of recent hardships. For example, Tajikistan suffered from a civil war from 1992 to 1997, which entailed fighting between the government forces and Islamic organizations, supported by fighters from Afghanistan. Since then, discontent with the government and extremist views still remains among many people, who have also retained their weapon skills. If the situation destabilizes, these people can fill the ranks of illegal armed groups. In September 2015, an attempted coup took place in Tajikistan, as a result of which, according to some reports, dozens of Tajiks, who are part of the military and police forces, died. The government managed to get the situation under control, but the incident clearly demonstrated that the leadership needs to be on guard.
In June 2010, a military conflict took place in Kyrgyzstan between Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens, and consequently, from 1,000 to 2,000 people were killed (according to various sources). It has been reported that members of Islamic organisations took part in the clashes.
In the last few years, media outlets have often mentioned discovery and disruption of extremist and terrorist units of organizations, including ISIS (banned in Russia and currently viewed as one of the most dangerous groups of its kind) in Central Asian nations and other CIS countries.
We could, therefore, conclude that the situation in Central Asia is difficult, and within its population radical ideas and currents remain influential.
In order to support these movements and pass on acquired experience, members of international terrorist organizations may sneak in from Afghanistan. In addition, drugs are trafficked from Afghanistan, and profits from such activities, to a great extent, finance terror networks. Thus far, the most dangerous zone has been the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The adjoining Afghan territory is engulfed by conflict between the Afghan government forces and terrorist units, first and foremost the Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation), with each side enjoying intermittent success. However, in 2018-2019 the Taliban has come significantly closer to the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan as well as the Uzbekistan–Afghanistan borders. Neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan is a member of the CSTO, and if terrorists become active in their territories, this will, undoubtedly, affect the state of security in all the member-states of the organization. Hence, at present, the CSTO leadership is working on plans of cooperation with the governments of Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan.
Still, most attention is still focused on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. It traverses mountains, which are difficult to cross, but at the same time also hard to patrol. These regions are scarcely populated, and people with the skills that enable them to survive and move in the mountains undetected have a chance of reaching Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Members of Afghan terrorist organizations certainly possess such skills in full measure. Due to Tajikistan’s geographic location, terrorists and drug traffickers who have crossed the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border can then continue to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and then to Russia. They can also head east to China, and go directly to XUAR, where, as mentioned earlier, the situation is quite worrisome and many people sympathize with radical views.
China is not part of the CSTO, which bears no responsibility for PRC’s safety. However, XUAR shares a border with four of the member-states of the CSTO, which means that security in XUAR is directly linked to that of the organization.
It is no secret that the leader (in terms of military might) of the CSTO is Russia, and Russian military personnel constitute the main forces of the organization. All of the nations in the CSTO were former republics of the Soviet Union, and, at present, more than 30 years since its collapse, Russia, the rightful successor of the USSR, is still responsible for ensuring security in the whole region.
The Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, the most volatile region in the south of the CSTO, is defended by Russia’s military base No. 201, located in Tajikistan. It is the largest Russian Federation base abroad. It has enough resources to repel an attack originating from Afghanistan. In July 1993, military personnel from military base No. 201 defeated joint forces, comprising Tajik opposition factions and Afghan mujahideen, who had seized the 12th Outpost of the Moscow (Afghanistan-Tajikistan) Border Unit after heavy fighting, which resulted in the death of 25 Russian patrolmen. The Tajik and Afghan units were then forced to return to Afghanistan.
However, if terrorists establish bases in other places, for example, in XUAR, military personnel from base No. 201 will probably be unable to interfere with their illegal activities. Hence, aside from military base No. 201 in Tajikistan, there is also the Kant military air base in Kyrgyzstan, 20 km away from the capital of this nation, Bishkek. The base was established in 2003, and is part of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force. It is home to Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft (designed to carry out air strikes on land targets, which is especially relevant when fighting terrorist units) and multi-role Mil Mi-8 helicopters. Kyrgyzstan has quite a powerful military force that includes a fairly large armored vehicle fleet (due in large part to the military and technical support provided by the Russian Federation, which supplies Kyrgyzstan with military equipment and trains Kyrgyz military personnel in its military academies). With Russia’s air support, Kyrgyz armed forces are perfectly capable of ensuring security in their territory.
In March 2019, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, paid an official visit to Kyrgyzstan. One of the main topics of his talks with Kyrgyzstan’s leader, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, was the future of the Kant Air Base. As a result, the two sides signed an agreement to expand the air base by 60 hectares and increase the land rent accordingly. According to Russia’s President, Kant ensures security and stability in the entire region of Central Asia. Vladimir Putin highlighted the close and long-term cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Russia in the military sphere, and stated that it will continue to develop.
That same month, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation announced that they intended to return to Tajikistan military towns in Kulob and Bokhtar, which have remained vacant since the 201 motor rifle division was reduced in size as far back as 2004, as compensation for the presence of Russian military personnel in Tajikistan.
Having resolved the issue of keeping its military bases open in the future, the Russian Federation has ensured, for many years to come, security of its southern borders and of Central Asian nations (whose security, historically, is linked to that of Russia).
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”