Nato Confronts Its Eurasian Rivals
Stephen Blank

Even before its 60th birthday summit in Strasbourg on April 3-4, NATO must decide how it wishes to relate to its Eurasian rivals, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has been invited to an SCO summit in Moscow that will discuss Afghanistan on March 27. At the same time, Moscow and its emissaries are incessantly importuning NATO to recognize the CSTO as a legitimate and viable security organization and deal with it accordingly. Thus, NATO must now confront the choice of answering these related summits.

BACKGROUND: These two organizations are hardly ordinary security providers. The CSTO is a Moscow-dominated defense organization that formally encompasses almost all the members of the CIS. Moscow has recently been pushing its development and has steadily been acquiring foreign military bases throughout the CIS at which these forces can be stationed or deployed. It contributes the bulk of the forces and the command and control of this organization, and it clearly dominates it. In the recent past, Moscow has assigned a division and a brigade to it, beefed up is power projection capabilities and secured bases for its own and presumably CSTO forces throughout Central Asia. Moscow claims that these forces are as good as NATO’s when it comes to defending against terrorism, although this is hardly likely to be the case given Moscow’s own recent and unsparing remarks about the quality of the Russian army, which it admitted was not fit for contemporary war despite its victory over Georgia in 2008.

But many questions surround the CSTO and call into doubt its utility for genuine combat missions. Its supreme command remains quite undefined. Indeed, we are told that it will be a secretariat, not a true military command organization. Second, its missions, at least formally, also remain undefined. Sources tell us it will not be used to quell domestic unrest among members and that it will be used against foreign or terrorist threats. But it is clear that the Russian army, not to mention other member armies, is in no condition to fight insurgents. They certainly are not going into Afghanistan, and Belarus has already exempted its forces from foreign missions. So again it remains unclear exactly what those forces will do when deployed. While the CSTO leadership wants to cooperate with NATO against the drug trade, and this is certainly a worthy endeavor in principle, there is no public elaboration of how this cooperation would be accomplished and under what organizational formula. Absent any details, these calls for cooperation amount to mere propaganda, not serious military-political policy. Meanwhile, as the CSTO clearly is controlled and directed by Russia, it is likely to be used largely as an instrument of Russian policy.

Moreover, Russia’s motives vis-à-vis NATO are quite transparent. Russia wants NATO to recognize this institution as a legitimate security provider because it is not ready to fully accept that Central Asian states can relate independently to NATO, and it wants to forestall and/or curtail their participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace or their bilateral military relations with the United States. It is a cardinal and fundamental point of Russian policy that no other foreign military be present in any form whatsoever in Central Asia or the Caucasus, whether it be naval, air, or land forces and, as the recent episode involving the U.S. air base at Manas confirms, Moscow is determined to oust America from the region even at the risk of obstructing effective military prosecution of the war against the Taliban.

IMPLICATIONS: Abundant evidence – such as Moscow’s official statements that Central Asian states are not allowed to organize regionally without Russian participation - testifies to Moscow’s belief that the Central Asian states are not fully sovereign, and thus are incapable of effectively making their own defense decisions. Therefore, they will inevitably fall under the sway of one or another great power or bloc, and would be either pro-Russian or pro-Western but not independent if left to their own devices. Since Moscow defines pro-Western states as intrinsically hostile to it, clearly there is no alternative but to subsume these “independent” states under its leadership in a large military-political bloc of Russia’s own. Consequently, Moscow wants the CSTO to be the intermediary between them and NATO so that NATO must go through Moscow for any substantive security discussions with Central Asia.

The idea that East and West are competing blocs that must be divided along lines of regional bipolarity is Moscow’s real foreign policy objective, and that it is what it means by multipolarity. This idea is a fixture in Russian foreign policy thinking. This author first heard it in Moscow in 1996 when participants at the biennial conference of European security institutions postulated that the U.S. should head the West and interact with Russia who led the former Soviet union, a posture that was properly and bitterly rejected by both Western and Eastern analysts there. Again in 2006, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov publicly advocated delimiting Eurasia between NATO and the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). At the December 1, 2006, meeting of the CIS and Baltic States Media Forum, Ivanov argued that “the next logical step on the path of reinforcing international security may be to develop a cooperation mechanism between NATO and the CSTO, followed by a clear division of spheres of responsibility. This approach offers the prospect of enabling us to possess a sufficiently reliable and effective leverage for taking joint action in crisis situations in various regions of the world.” Not only is this a frank call for spheres of influence and for Russia to create a security system akin to a solar system in which smaller states revolve around Russia, it also returns us to the strategic bipolarity of the Cold War.

Russian efforts to have NATO bless the SCO are also contrary to NATO’s interests and values, as well as the interests of Central Asian states. Although the SCO has conducted large-scale anti-terrorist exercises for several years, it is Russia, rather than other members, who is most intent on converting it into a primarily defense-oriented organization. It also has tried to use the SCO to gain support for such insupportable initiatives like the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although Central Asian Governments value the SCO for its benefits allowing them to collaborate to impress their views upon Russia and China and for the benefits they receive from those two larger states, they have shown no inclination to convert the SCO into a fundamentally military organization as Russia apparently wants.

CONCLUSIONS: Under the circumstances, for NATO to sanction the SCO as a defense organization on a par with it when it has done nothing to contribute to the war effort in Afghanistan - and Russia has, on the contrary, striven to hamper it - makes little sense. For NATO to decide to approve the SCO or the CSTO as legitimate defenders of Central Asia on a par with it in view of Russia’s contempt for Central Asian sovereignty and obstructive demands concerning cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan, would not only prevent NATO and the Central Asian states from working together according to their own calculations, but it would also be a serious mistake. Such a decision would only subordinate the necessity of genuine cooperation against the Taliban to the requirements of Russia’s overall political agenda that is decidedly out of sync with the deepest and most vital interests of Central Asian states.

Thus it is clear that Russia, for all its opposition to the Taliban, is not prepared to subordinate its interests to the common threat. Indeed, in view of its earlier hints of a desire for a sphere of influence in Afghanistan, it is by no means clear if it is really committed to the serious conduct of the war that is necessary to defeat the Taliban threat. Neither can NATO legitimately accept the CSTO and SCO as authoritative security providers without denying the sovereign right of Central Asian states to make their own defense arrangements as they see fit. That is a clearly unacceptable position. While the severity and the urgency of the Afghan crisis is obvious to all; there are several good reasons why it would be a mistake to attend the SCO meeting and to recognize the CSTO. These are no ordinary security organizations.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.