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Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Caucasus Conflict

Dr Jason Wahlang is a Research Analyst in the Europe and Eurasia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 11, 2024

    On 23 February 2024, Armenian Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan announced Armenia’s suspension of its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) due to the organisation’s inability to fulfil its security mandate of safeguarding Armenia in the event of an armed conflict. This step was taken following Azerbaijan’s attack on the Kapan municipality’s Nerkin Hand and Srashen villages in the Syunik district of Armenia. This was the latest military invasion launched by Azerbaijan after establishing control over Nagorno-Karabakh which it had taken control in 2023.

    These events and inability of CSTO to defend Armenia have strained ties between Armenia and the regional organisation and to that effect, has put the country at odds with Russia, the most prominent CSTO member. The worsening ties could reduce organisational influence and its relevance as a security provider in the Caucasus. Given these developments, it is open to question if the CSTO can continue to play a vital role in upholding member countries’ sovereignty and preserve the regional security architecture amid increasing geopolitical complexities.

    CSTO and Past Conflicts

    The CSTO, established in 2003, comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Its role was defined as that of a security provider and in maintaining regional stability and territorial integrity of these countries. These objectives were highlighted mainly because the region was already suffering from historical turmoil amongst the states, including border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict.1

    Articles 2 and 4 of its charter underline its primary obligations to the member states. According to Article 2, if a member's security, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty are undermined, then the other members must come to its aid.2 Article 4 emphasises that aggression faced by any member state would be equivalent to an attack on the organisation.3  

    Notably, Russia exercises an overarching role over the remaining members, providing the majority of the resources in its effort to remake its image as successor state of Soviet Union. Any statements which come out of the organisation is also painted as part of the greater Russian narrative, and therefore, inaction on the part of the organisation puts into question the Russian stake in CSTO, its influence and the organisation’s capacity to resolve conflicts among member states when required.

    The Eurasian region has been affected by protests within their territory and also cross-border conflicts between the various nations. There have been specific conflicts in which the CSTO has been asked to intervene, including in Kyrgyzstan (2010) and in Armenia (2020, 2023). However, the CSTO, despite having defined objectives, has refused to intervene in most disputes, with the protests in Kazakhstan (2022) being an exception.4 It was the first known involvement of the organisation at the request of a member state. Although the non-interventionist nature of CSTO had not affected its relationship between the member countries, that changed after the Second Nagorno Karabakh War in 2020.

    The Caucasus has long been fraught with instability due to the Nagorno-Karabakh War, with the Armenians claiming victory in the first Karabakh war in 1994 and the Azeris claiming victory in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. While the CSTO was not established when the first war broke out, its reluctance to effectively intervene in the next phase of the war has soured ties between Armenia and Russia, the latter considered the organisation’s most influential voice.

    In 2021, the initial divisions within the CSTO became visible after its refused to invoke Article 2, even as Azerbaijan launched attacks deep into 45 sq km of Armenian territory.5 Furthermore, deprived of organisational assistance, in a retaliatory move, the Armenian government refrained from participating in scheduled meetings,6 followed by relinquishing the post of CSTO’s Deputy Secretary General and refusing to sign a joint declaration at an organisational summit and host a CSTO exercise.7

    These actions raised questions about CSTO’s continued relevance and pitted Armenia against Russia. This has pushed Armenia to the fold of Western powers that are looking for an opportunity to corner Russia. Moscow has responded by threatening Armenia against its alignment with the United States and European Union.8

    CSTO’s Joint Staff, Andrey Serdyukov, on 14 February 2024, stressed that the potential for conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is high considering the attacks in Armenia’s Syunik district. Despite such statements released by CSTO, it maintained its non-confrontational approach to the conflict between the Caucasus neighbours.  

    Future of CSTO in the Caucasus

    CSTO’s limited involvement in maintaining regional security, barring the Kazakh issue in January 2022, has led to growing criticism by member states of its role. It has become even more pronounced with its lacklustre performance in the Caucasus.

    Nevertheless, Armenia's responses to CSTO’s shying away from its security obligations have no bearing on its relationship with Russia despite statements from the Russian regime, which remains a prominent feature of its ‘complementarist’ foreign policy. Armenia has only sought to diversify its collaborative partners and strengthen relationships with actors such as the European Union and France to have geopolitical elbow room in its conflict with Azerbaijan.

    As a result, while Russia would remain an essential cog in Armenian foreign policy, Armenia’s attempts to diversify its defence and military cooperation with European nations (France and Greece) could diminish Russian influence in the long run. Russia also does not want to get dragged to the conflict here given its involvement in the Ukraine war.

    In the current complex geopolitical context, the CSTO’s future in the Caucasus appears bleak, especially if Armenia’s growing frustrations result in its severing ties with the organisation in the future due to its inability to respond to Azeri actions, as it would hinder CSTO’s access to the region. There exist two precedents on this front: Azerbaijan and Georgia, former members of CSTO’s predecessor, the Collective Security Treaty, exited the group in 1999. Nonetheless, in Central Asia, mainly due to the organisations’ rapid involvement in Kazakhstan, it gives a hope that it would remain relevant as a security provider.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.