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BISHKEK, Jan. 5 ( - A major CSTO military exercise took place in September 2011, involvingRussia and some of the Central Asian members. The exercise was officially aimed at countering threats posed by the potential spread of jihadists fromAfghanistan.

However, it also involved naval exercises aimed at preventing the construction of an alternative gas line between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. This implies that the CSTO, which does not have a track record of efficiency, is unlikely to ensure stability in Central Asia in the case of major crisis. It is also unlikely that Putin’s recent initiative to create a Eurasian Union will enhance the prospects for creating a viable military alliance in Central Asia.

 BACKGROUND:  Russia, whose army constitutes the strongest component of the CSTO, is certainly concerned with developments in Afghanistan. Moscow is especially alarmed by the recent murder of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a leading figure in the attempt to reconcile the Taliban and the Kabul government. In Moscow’s perception, his efforts could have prevented a new round of civil war, and a likely victory of the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal. Moscow is truly concerned about the possible collapse of the Kabul regime and for some members of the Russian elite, the fear of a Taliban victory overpowered their deep seated anti-Americanism. This fear of both the Taliban and general instability in Middle East was an important reason for the exercise. However, the exercise also had other objectives, implying that Russia seeks to utilize the military alliance for pursuing its own objectives, rather than securing regional stability.

 One component of the exercise included naval manoeuvres in the Caspian Sea, though terrorists are unlikely to engage in naval battle. It is therefore difficult to see any counter-terrorist relevance in such exercises, while the Kremlin is extremely interested in maintaining Russia’s role as the dominant gas supplier to Europe. Gas and oil exports account for Moscow’s main source of funding, which is essential for maintaining the country’s social and political stability. This stability has made it possible to placate the public, to some degree, and ensure the coming transition from Medvedev to Putin. While the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline allows Moscow to directly send its gas to Europe, bypassing what Moscow regarded as non-cooperative East Europe, a challenge has emerged in the Caspian Basin. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have stated that they will participate in building the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), a gas pipeline bypassing Russia, on the bottom of the Caspian Sea. Moscow has protested and proclaimed that nothing can be built in the Caspian Sea unless permitted by all littoral states including Russia. Yet, Ashgabat and Baku, as well as Brussels, think otherwise.

Consequently, the navy was deployed in the Caspian Sea to demonstrate Russia’s resolve. Moscow has been preparing for this scenario for a long time, and started upgrading its Caspian fleet already in 2003. By fall 2010 the Caspian fleet included several naval ships armed with rockets and marines and was reinforced by missiles deployed on shore. The recent exercises involved 18 ships and two battalions of marines, in total deploying up to 1,000 military personnel. After the manoeuvres, Moscow has left little doubt that it built these forces largely for one purpose: to prevent the construction of a gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Some Russian experts are of the opinion that Moscow can defend its position only by using force or the threat of force, not by diplomatic means.

IMPLICATIONS: Mikhail Alexandrov at the Institute of CIS Countries told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he had warned high-ranking EU diplomats for several months. “This happened once at a dinner at the German embassy, in the presence of Pierre Morel, EU special representative for Central Asia. I tried to explain to him that the West underestimated Moscow’s resolve to prevent the building of gas pipelines across the Caspian Sea.  The reasons for that are not so much economic, as military-political,” Alexandrov said. His point undoubtedly represents the view of influential people in the Kremlin.

“It is true that Moscow cannot permit violations of the legal regime of the Caspian Sea, established by agreements with Iran, because it could lead to legal anarchy in the region, including the appearance of military bases of third countries,” Alexandrov believes. “Building the TCP will mean the de-facto recognition of the division of the Caspian Sea into sectors. This is absolutely unacceptable for Russia and it will have to take action, similar to the operation compelling Georgia to peace.” He also added that Russia is hardly a war monger: “The U.S. clearly shows Russia how to act when the country’s national interests are at stake. This time it will have to compel Ashgabat and Baku to observe international law, probably with the help of air strikes, if they do not understand any other language.  Remembering what NATO did in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Russia has no barriers, moral or legal ones, for the use of force in the Caspian Sea,” according to Alexandrov. 

Moscow’s tough language is not an unfounded threat. It already has a strong military presence in the area and has made clear that it will upgrade its presence in the future. Until 2020, up to 16 new ships are planned to reinforce the Caspian flotilla, some armed with missiles capable of engaging targets at a distance of 130 kilometers. 

The very fact that Russia can use the CSTO forces for its national interests was not missed by other countries in the region, and especially by the members of the alliance. Uzbekistan and Belarus did not participate in the exercise, and Tajikistan increasingly looks to Iran as additional strategic backup. The relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow recently reached a new low when Tajikistan arrested a Russian pilot. The Kremlin reacted immediately. Some politicians in Moscow even proposed to use military force against Dushanbe and many Tajik guest workers were expelled from Russia. This hardly provides credibility to Moscow’s plans for creating a Eurasian Union as a combined economic and geopolitical/military alliance, which would include most states of the former USSR. Even Kazakhstan, supposedly one of the key players in the new union, displays skepticism regarding Moscow’s initiatives.

While Nazarbaev has verbally expressed his support for the enterprise, he continues to exercise a “multi-vector” foreign policy where Russia is just one among many geopolitical options. Astana, along with the other states of the Caspian region, is building its military muscles. In general, the tendency among the regional states is to keep upgrading their military capacities while mutual trust and cooperation remain weak. Belarusian President Lukashenko has followed suit. He has expressed his support for the Union, while noting that Belarus has been part of a “union state” with Russia for some time. Still, Russia has hardly handled Belarus on the basis of an equal partnership. It has raised the price of oil several times and has sought to gain control of key features of the Belarusian economy.  Lukashenko has noted that China, rather than Russia, is treating Belarus as a true ally. Beijing provides generous loans and grants, asking for nothing in return.

CONCLUSIONS: These are but a few examples of the lack of trust between the states taking part in Russia’s geopolitical/military arrangements.  Consequently, there is reason to question both the cohesiveness of the CSTO and its capability of meeting future regional threats, as well as the viability of a future Eurasian Union. The recent CSTO exercise is a case in point. While their counter-terrorist component was an objective around which most members could cooperate, Russia’s use of the exercises to project its military presence in the Caspian Sea hardly added to the cohesiveness of the alliance.


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