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Can Belarus use the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to fend off Moscow’s pressure?

On 24 May, member state defence ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Eurasian intergovernmental military alliance acting as a multifunctional security organisation, held a conference on the establishment of a joint forces command and combined units...

On 24 May, member state defence ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Eurasian intergovernmental military alliance acting as a multifunctional security organisation, held a conference on the establishment of a joint forces command and combined units of nuclear, chemical and biological defence. The conference was a continuation of the 16 May CSTO summit in Moscow.

Belarusian officials called for the strengthening of the organisation. Meanwhile, the summit exhibited only ambiguous support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. There were calls for a dialogue with NATO. For its part, Minsk appears to be acting through post-Soviet organisations, like the CSTO, to counter the Kremlin’s pressure.

Limited support for Moscow

The CSTO was founded by nine post-Soviet countries in 1992. Under Russia’s leadership, its aim was to manage the military aspects of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The CSTO has remained a loose association for decades as its membership dwindled to six nations—Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The CSTO is notoriously non-transparent. Moreover, the Belarusian regime has been unusually shtum about the 16 May Moscow summit. So, recent news requires some deciphering. In late 2022, Belarus will take over the annually rotating chairmanship of the CSTO. Having been cut off from the West and its regional neighbours, Minsk has become extremely dependent on Moscow. Chairmanship of the CSTO provides Minsk with additional leverage in relations with Putin’s Russia. The Belarusian regime may take advantage of this to better negotiate a place in the sun once Russia makes its peace with Ukraine and the West.

This explains Belarusian leadership’s wish to further strengthen the CSTO. Addressing the recent CSTO summit, Belarusian dictator President Alexander Lukashenka said, “We cannot allow a new international architecture to be constructed without us… I believe that the CSTO should strengthen its status in the international system.”

A map of CSTO (red) and NATO (blue) members. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

More specifically, Lukashenka wants to increase political coordination among member states and to have the CSTO speak with one voice. Lukashenka lamented the CSTO lacked solidarity, arguing its members have given in to Western pressure and are failing to support Belarus and Russia in their hour of need.

Indeed, the summit failed to back Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow Carnegie Centre analyst Alexander Baunov commented,

the Kremlin had no chance to get CSTO countries involved in its war… It is unlikely that CSTO allies are expected to do more than generally recognise that responsibility lies not only with Russia.

Against this backdrop, the Belarusian regime’s wish to engage with such a set of partners looks like another new edition of its earlier search for counterbalances against Moscow. Inside the CSTO framework, Minsk sees opportunities for coalition building.

How can the CSTO intervene in the war in Ukraine?

Belarusian troops deployed in Kazakhstan. Image: YouTube.

It seems Moscow wanted the CSTO to act as a peace-keeping force after the success of Russian military operations in Ukraine. On February 19, before the invasion, Stanislau Zas’, the CSTO Secretary-General, said that sending CSTO forces to Donbas would be possible with Ukraine’s consent and a UN mandate.

In preparation, last December, CSTO countries amended regulations on peace-keeping. The concept of a “coordinating country” to lead CSTO peace-keeping forces was introduced. This change was important in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, because Russia, as a party to the war, could not lead a peace-keeping force. However, Belarus could. Minsk repeatedly offered to send Belarusian peacekeepers to Eastern Ukraine throughout the 2010s. In January, the CSTO carried out its first mission in Kazakhstan, sending troops for a short while for no obvious reasons. The logic had to do with preparing for possible deployment in Ukraine.

Moscow, however, failed to achieve its goals in Ukraine and hardly can rely on the CSTO. The summit’s participants failed to mention the Ukraine conflict in their final statement. Secretary-General Zas’ noted they did not discuss CSTO participation in military operations in Ukraine. Instead, CSTO leaders announced their willingness for practical cooperation with NATO to lower tensions.

China as the saviour from Putin?

Even before assuming the chairmanship, Minsk can promote its agenda inside the CSTO. This is made possible by Secretary-General Zas’, who came to run the CSTO after holding key security positions within the Belarusian government. His actions as a key official in the organisation correspond with Minsk’s plans for the CSTO. He has sought better multilateral coordination and increased Chinese involvement. For example, Zas’ helped to facilitate the expansion of the organisation by accepting Azerbaijan, which is known for its close cooperation with Belarus and Uzbekistan—both states known for their independent stance regarding the Kremlin. Increasing membership diminishes the power imbalance between Russia and the rest of the CSTO members—something which Minsk likes.

Stanislau Zas’. Image: ont.by.

Minsk is continuing this “the more the merrier” logic with its recent attempts to bring China closer to the CSTO. Indeed, Belarusian officials have been articulating this idea for many years. On 18 May 2022, Secretary-General Zas’ met with his counterpart from the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO),  Secretary-General Zhang Ming, to announce “a new epoch of interaction” between the organisations.

The secretaries-general of the CSTO and the SCO were meeting for the second time in the history of the two organisations (the first time was in 2003). Zas’ underscored that the CSTO and the SCO share many assessments and approaches concerning security. After the talks, both politicians emphasised their negative opinions of the NATO expansion. Zas’ invited the SCO Secretary-General to consider the possibility of the SCO becoming a partner or observer in the CSTO.

To sum up, Minsk tries to use post-Soviet international multilateral organisations (like the CSTO or the Eurasian Economic Union) to solve issues with Moscow, because it has the chance to get better deals with the Kremlin. The CSTO is not just a tool in Putin’s hands. Member states, including Belarus, can defend their autonomy from Russia via the organisation. It would be wrong to dismiss the current Belarusian regime as a mere marionette of Putin. Further developing the multilateral format of the CSTO—with China acting as a counterweight to Russia—is yet another strategy for Minsk to survive politically in absence of other alternatives.

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Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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