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 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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
Belarusian government fears spill-over from Russian war in Ukraine
On 10 May, Belarusian General Staff Head Viktar Hulevich announced the country was facing a growing “military threat.” Minsk is worried about both the short-term danger of the war spill-over into Belarus after Putin’s failures in Ukraine and more distant risks related to the rapidly increasing militarisation of the region. Driven by these concerns, the Belarusian military held exercises along the border with Poland and Ukraine, deployed troops there, and publicly discussed new arms acquisitions.
Unprecedented visits and drills
On 11 May, the State Secretary of Security Council Alyaksandr Valfovich made an unprecedented, publicised visit to Belarusian army units deployed on the Ukrainian border. They were stationed there following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Their numbers were reinforced after 4 May, when the army conducted a surprise check of its rapid response forces. Troops took positions along the Ukrainian border and with bordering NATO countries.
Belarusian state media gave extensive coverage of these troop movements but provided no context. In fact, it was escalation along the Russia-Ukrainian border that triggered these reinforcements and readiness checks along Belarus’ borders. In recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have finally begun to fire on Russian territory. Minsk apparently is worried the Ukrainian army could do the same to Belarus. After all, some Russian troops remain stationed in Belarus and, most probably, continue to be involved in Putin’s military operations in Ukraine.
Belarusian state media also omitted other crucial details about the deployments. First, while the deployment on the border with Poland and the Baltics has added to numerous units already there, the units deployed on the Ukrainian border are only temporary.
The second omitted detail is the 10 May military exercises in the Kobryn and Lida districts began with about 430 territorial troops. In the past, such exercises only featured half this number of soldiers. The increased numbers demonstrate Minsk’s increased concern.
No new money for arms
Concurrently, Minsk has demonstrated its armament plans. On 10 May, Belarusian security officials held a conference to discuss its annual plan for military purchases. Reporting from the meeting, state media revealed that last year Belarus purchased 80 armoured personnel carriers (Russian-made BTR-82A), four drones, more than 2,000 anti-tank guided missiles, and 10 aircraft were overhauled.
Belarusian Defence Minister Viktar Khrenin, however, announced that Minsk was not going to increase its defence budget. Moreover, Khrenin said the army would buy as much as possible from the national arms industry. As for the purchases abroad, Khrenin said that some expensive weapons—like Su-30SM aircraft, helicopters, Tor-M2 missile systems, etc…—would be purchased by drawing from the remainder of a Russian loan used for the construction of a nuclear power plant.
Minsk aspires to continue an earlier course aimed at building an army that fits Belarusian needs by discarding heavy and costly equipment. Talking at the conference on 10 May, Belarusian dictator President Alexander Lukashenka said the emphasis laid a decade ago on increasing Belarusian army mobility had proven right.
Lukashenka went on to discuss “some lessons of Ukrainian war.” In this regard, he even cautiously praised the Ukrainian army saying, “The most efficient, including on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, were mobile groups that instantly, unexpectedly approached the enemy, which is much superior to them in power.”
To emulate this approach, Lukashenko continued, vehicles are needed so that within an hour or two using the developed road infrastructure of Belarus, they can approach enemy units detected by reconnaissance and strike:
We need very agile units. And we need to concentrate on this. Of course, the S-400 [surface-to-air missile system], ultra-modern aircraft, etcetera, are good. But, as we have seen, large high-tech forces, whether it be the United States or NATO, have a tremendous capability to destroy all sorts of airfields, etcetera, in one-to-two hours. And where will you land your planes? Moreover, the survivability of these planes is next to zero. Therefore, wherever you look, mobility is needed.
The Belarusian government is also continuing its missile programme. On 10 May, the State Committee for Military Industry Chairman, Dzmitry Pantus, announced that Belarus was about to test new missiles in May and August for the Palanez, a multiple-launch rocket system (apparently adapted for cruise missiles, as well), and for the BUK surface-to-air missile system. “Manufacturing rockets and missiles today is one of the key priorities of the State Committee for Military Industry,” Pantus stated.
Russian nukes and Minsk
Of course, Belarusian officials also referred to military cooperation with Russia. Lukashenka stated this week:
We were always aware of what our army could do against NATO (this is a colossus!) … But we must not forget that behind us stands Russia, a nuclear power. And we have a corresponding agreement. And we have been talking on this topic very often lately with the president of Russia.
This statement appears to be in reaction to recent regional developments. First among them is the finalisation in April of a Polish contract with the United States on the purchase of Abrams tanks. And second is in reaction to Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s statement to the effect that Warsaw is willing to deploy American nuclear weapons and more American troops on its territory.
Besides the general rhetoric of Russian nuclear might, Minsk recently revealed more specific arrangements with Moscow. Reportedly, S-400 air defence systems will “be left” in Belarus (it was not clear, under whose command). Minsk is going to purchase Russian Iskander ballistic missile systems currently deployed in the country.
Besides this, Moscow promised Russian experts’ help in developing a Belarusian missile, “similar to the Russian Iskander” ballistic missile. Minsk may try to develop such a missile to be launched from its own Palanez platform. So far, the Palanez has been developed with non-Russian, mostly Chinese technology, in a probable collaboration with Azerbaijan. Even the testing for the Palanez has taken place outside in Russia.
Belarus is sending somewhat contradictory signals about its intentions in the security sphere. These contradictions reflect pressures from different directions. On the one side, there is the deep dependence on Russia that developed after the 2020 collapse in relations with all other neighbours. On the other side, there is a fear of over-dependence on Russia combined with an aversion to fighting with Putin against Ukraine. This suggests Belarus is not hopelessly lost to Putin and there are still ways to prevent it from being dragged into the ongoing war in Ukraine.