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The CSTO and its deployment in Kazakhstan

8 February, 2022

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

Just five months following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed the Treaty on Collective Security in May 1992, forming the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Collective Security Treaty (CST). They were joined the following year by Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia. In 1999, six members signed a protocol to renew the treaty: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. In 2002, these same countries signed the Charter of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The purpose of this group would be collective defense and the strengthening of regional security within the bloc. In October 2007, the CSTO agreed to create a ‘Peacekeeping Force’ that could deploy under a United Nations (UN) mandate, or, within one of its member states without a UN mandate. And in January 2022, the CSTO would, for the first time, deploy collective military forces in the form of ‘peacekeepers’, when violent protests sparked a domestic crisis in Kazakhstan.

The January Crisis

On January 2, protests erupted in western Kazakhstan due to the doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), the most commonly used fuel for cars in the country. These quickly spread nationwide, reflecting wider discontent with the government that had been steeping among the population, such as inflation, and low salaries and pensions. On January 4, protests became violent and on January 5, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took several steps to address the situation, as protestors had torched various commercial establishments, stormed government buildings and clashed with security forces nationwide. These measures included dissolving the government, restoring the price cap on LPG, and requesting military support from the CSTO, a call to which the organization responded to on the same day. On the next day, the first Russian soldiers began arriving in Kazakhstan, as part of the CSTO ‘Peacekeeping Force’. Over the course of the following days, the remaining CSTO countries deployed their contributions as well.

On January 7, President Tokayev took the drastic step of authorizing a shoot-to-kill without warning order for the police and military, and on January 9, he stated that order had been restored to the country. On January 11, Tokayev informed the country in a live broadcast that the CSTO forces would begin withdrawing on January 13, taking no more than 10 days to leave. Within seven days the withdrawal was completed, with the last contingent departing Kazakhstan on January 19. By the time the crisis ended, about 50,000 people were believed to have joined the protests, of which 225 people were reported to have been killed, a further 2,600 receiving medical treatment and more than 10,000 being arrested.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization

While the mission to Kazakhstan was the first military operation the CSTO has carried out, it was not the first request for such from a member state; Both Kyrgyzstan and Armenia have previously requested CSTO support. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, 2010 saw over 400 people killed and nearly 2,000 homes destroyed in inter-ethnic clashes between Tajiks and Kyrgyz in the south of the country. The then-President Roza Otunbayeva and former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev appealed to the CSTO for assistance, which was turned down with the explanation that the unrest was an “internal dispute”. Then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev explained that a foreign intrusion and an “attempt to externally seize power” would be required before an attack against the CSTO can be claimed. Similarly, a request for CSTO assistance by Armenia during its war against Azerbaijan in 2021 was rejected on the grounds that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized territory, invalidating the CSTOs defense statute. This is the statute Kazakhstan invoked on January 5, Article 4 of the CST;

If one of the Member States undergoes aggression (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty), it will be considered by the Member States as aggression (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty) to all the Member States of this Treaty.

In case of aggression commission (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty) to any of the Member States, all the other Member States at request of this Member State shall immediately provide the latter with the necessary help, including military one, as well as provide support by the means at their disposal in accordance with the right to collective defence pursuant to article 51 of the UN Charter.

President Tokayev was able to justify this invocation by claiming that “foreign terrorists”, “bandits” and “gunmen” from central Asian countries and militants from the Middle East instigated the protests and attempted to stage a coup, adding that a “sizable number of foreign nationals” had been detained during the protests. The CSTOs response acknowledged “aggression from outside” in its official response;

In connection with the appeal of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and in view of the threat to national security and sovereignty of the Republic of Kazakhstan caused, among other things, by aggression from outside, the CSTO Collective Security Council in accordance with Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty decided to send the CSTO Collective Peacekeeping Forces to the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited period of time in order to stabilize and normalize the situation in that country.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, chair of the CSTOs Collective Security Council at the time, elaborated, saying the crisis in Kazakhstan amounted to a “border incident” and reminded that the CSTO only acts in cases of aggression or attack. On January 6, the CSTOs Secretary General, Stanislav Zas, informed the UN it would be deploying its collective ‘Peacekeeping Force’ in response to Kazakhstan’s invocation. Letters were also sent to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The CSTOs ‘Peacekeeping Force’ consists of about 3,600 personnel, of which about 2,500 are believed to have been deployed to Kazakhstan until “the situation completely stabilized”. Their primary task was to guard government and military facilities, with the secondary bring to support in maintaining law and order. While the exact number of CSTO troops and their national make-up is unclear, it is believed that approximately 100 Armenian, 150 Kyrgyz, 200 Tajik, and 100 Belarussian soldiers deployed alongside the Russian contingent making up the remainder of the 2,500 personnel, including the mission head.

The ‘Peacekeeping Force’

The ‘peacekeeping’ mission quickly became a topic of contention. Kazakhstan’s military alone is believed to number some 77,000 personnel, with 45,000 on active duty and 32,000 paramilitaries, begging the question what added benefit a 2,500-strong ‘Peacekeeping Force’ would provide. A statement from President Tokayev’s office said that the CSTO forces made it possible for Kazakh forces to be redeployed to the “counter-terrorism” operation, though Kazakhstan’s police force is sure to add several thousand personnel to the available manpower to address protests. Tokayev also said that the CSTO mission helped “prevent terrorist groups” from taking control of the country. The United States openly questioned this, saying Kazakh authorities surely had the capacity to deal appropriately with the protests autonomously making it unclear why outside assistance was needed.

The short time it took for the CSTO to respond to Tokayev’s assistance request, and the speed in which forces were deployed, less than 24 hours, was also rather stunning. Similarly, the rapid withdrawal of all foreign forces also served to allay fears of a prolonged Russian military presence in Kazakhstan. This has led some to believe that Russian President Putin was waiting for Tokayev’s call for support, indicating that preparations for deployment occurred prior to January 5.

The Bigger Picture

The deployment of the CSTO’s ‘Peacekeeping Force’ is very likely more of a symbolic gesture on part of CSTO countries, rather than a needed contribution to end protests. The speed of the CSTO response can be seen as a sign of support towards Tokayev by Moscow and its allies, bolstering his authority; His calling for help serves as a sign of legitimacy among CSTO nations. Consequently, the CSTO will be seen as a form of “regime-preservation vehicle” in the future. To be noted is the lack of proof of foreign aggression, putting into question the justification for CSTO involvement to begin with. The role the ‘peacekeepers’ carried out – that of securing infrastructure as opposed to what is commonly understood to be peacekeeping as per the UN, also hints at the more political nature of the mission. Images of Kazakh forces wearing Blue Helmets commonly associated with UN Peacekeepers also drew international criticism. It is unclear why some Kazakh soldiers wore this equipment, which is only to be worn while carrying out a UN mandate, though it was reportedly addressed in a quick manner.

President Putin repeated the accusations of foreign involvement, adding that the events that occurred in Kazakhstan are “not the first and far from the last attempt at outside interference in the internal affairs of [CSTO] states,” proclaiming that the organization will not allow “color revolutions” to take place. This references popular revolutions that occurred in former-Soviet states over the past two decades, further indicating the CSTOs unofficial role in regime-preservation. In doing so, the deployment was likely an attempt to improve the CSTOs reputation, as its years of inactivity allegedly negatively affected it. Lastly, it was important for Russia to not be perceived as an “occupying force,” hence the swift withdrawal from Kazakhstan, lest the mission could have lost whatever positive perception it may have received in CSTO states.

Image: Protests in Aqtobe, Kazakstan, January 4 2022 (source: Esetok via CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.