Russia-led security alliance wary of Islamist threat from Afghanistan

By Sergei Blagov

The Russia-led security alliance, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is pledged to counter security challenges in the Central Asia. It does this by relying on its Rapid Reaction Collective Force (KSOR).

In a sign of mounting Russian concerns about a spillover from Islamist elements in the region,  the CSTO general secretary, Russian general Nikolai Bordyuzha, recently said that the CSTO’s rapid reaction forces were prepared to protect borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from possible incursions of militants from Afghanistan. “We have no other choice so as to sustain stability in Central Asia,” Bordyuzha said in televised remarks on June 10. Any destabilization in Central Asia would adversely affect Russia, according to Bordyuzha.

Bordyuzha’s statement followed the latest show of force by the CSTO. Last month, KSOR units conducted unprecedented exercises in Tajikistan aimed at countering security threats from Afghanistan. On May 12-22, some 2,500 personnel of KSOR representing all CSTO member-states took part in the drill. The maneuvers involved land operations and air strikes against the incursion of some 700 militants from Afghanistan. These “sudden exercises” came as KSOR’s largest drill in Central Asia so far.

KSOR, formed in 2009, currently includes some 22,000 personnel. In April 2011, the CSTO formed the Collective Peacekeeping Forces (KMS). All member states contributed to the national peacekeeping force. The KMS totals some 4,000 personnel.

There have been other military activities in the region in recent weeks. In June, the special forces of Kyrgyzstan and Russia held a smaller drill in Kyrgyz mountains, also aimed at forestalling possible incursions of militants from Afghanistan. On June 10, Russian marines completed “sudden exercises” in Southern Astrakhan and the Dagestan regions in the Caspian.

The security alliance also plans more drills later this year. On June 10-11, the CSTO officials met in Yerevan to discuss the upcoming KMS drill, to be held in Armenia from Sept. 28 to October 4.

The CSTO, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, is designed to face joint security challenges.

Initially, the CSTO was known as Tashkent treaty organization. But its name and composition changed after Uzbekistan left the grouping in 1999. Uzbekistan re-joined the CSTO in 2006, leaving again in 2012. Azerbaijan and Georgia also left the CSTO in 1999.

In the meantime, states outside the former Soviet republics expressed interest in joining the CSTO. In 2012-2015, India, Iran and Egypt held talks with the CSTO on observer status and possible membership.

However, the CSTO remains focused on the former Soviet entities. Since 2010, the CSTO has pledged to counter a possible threat from what the grouping described as the “controlled chaos” from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The CSTO has been mulling a specific plan to counter threats to member-states originating Afghanistan since 2011. In September 2013, the CSTO pledged increased assistance to Tajikistan aimed at fortifying the country’s border with Afghanistan.

The heads of states of the CSTO gathered in Moscow on December 23, 2014. The summit meeting adopted more than 20 agreements, including a decision to move towards creation of joint air forces.

Apart from that, the CSTO experts have been mulling joint air defense systems in Europe (Russia-Belarus), in the Caucasus (Russia-Armenia) and in Central Asia (Russia-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan).

However, there were worries that the latest Russian and CSTO so-called “sudden exercises” that were viewed as military drills conducted without warning, weren’t exactly in line with various international treaties.

Notably, the Vienna Document, an agreement between the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, requires prior notification of military activities, including drills involving more than 9,000 personnel, or 3,000 if drills involve airlift operations.

The CSTO’s latest exercises in Tajikistan met this requirement. However, other multilateral and unilateral military drills that were carried out without notice were viewed by some outside the alliance as undermining regional stability.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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