The Implications of UN-CSTO Cooperation

By Stephen Blank

Kyrgyzstan’s recent upheaval and the  war in Afghanistan have obscured the fact that other important developments are occurring in Central Asia. For example, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), announced in March that the Russia-dominated security group and the United Nations would henceforth cooperate in countering terrorism, transnational crime (including illegal arms trafficking), and in settling conflicts.

This declaration has far-reaching implications for Central Asia, given that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are CSTO members. For one, it signifies Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s desire to raise the UN’s profile in Central Asia. Not only is the UN prepared to recognize and work with the CSTO, it also is prepared to work with Central Asian governments on a variety of issues, including water management.

While the UN has been quietly active in the past, trying to enhance regional cooperation on water and electric energy projects, this pubic announcement suggests a more activist role in the near future. Accordingly, the UN is bolstering a regional center for preventive diplomacy that it established in 2007 in Ashgabat. The UN secretary-general emphasized that the agreement with the CSTO signified recognition of the UN’s authority and ability to contribute to global security. More broadly it marked a big step in its efforts to cooperate with regional security organizations.

But the significance of this accord goes beyond its importance for the UN’s role in Central Asia. It also represents the first international recognition of the CSTO, outside of its own members, as a regional player. This is a very important point because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has so far refused to offer the CSTO such recognition.

Moscow has invested a tremendous amount of time and money into turning the CSTO into an engine for promoting security in Central Asia, and the Kremlin has long craved international recognition of the organization’s potential capabilities, in particular from NATO. Thus, the Atlantic Alliance’s withholding of approval profoundly rankles Russian leaders.

NATO’s reasons for not recognizing the CSTO are self-evident. Russia’s goal has all along been to create an organization that it would dominate, and which could then speak authoritatively on behalf of Central Asian states to NATO and other such organizations. In effect, it would circumscribe the sovereign rights of other member states on matters of self-defense and defense policy. NATO recognition of the CSTO would amount to de facto acknowledgement of that limitation of Central Asian governments’ sovereignty, and of Russia’s right to a sphere of influence in the region.

> Central Asia Map
UN recognition of the CSTO can and probably will be seen in Moscow as constituting the UN’s acknowledgement of Russia’s role as Central Asia’s security manager. Beyond this important geopolitical point, there are significant operational and military considerations involved. The new accord calls for the broadening of UN-CSTO cooperation, “taking into account the respective spheres of competence and procedures of either organization.” Should an international peace operation (whether peace-keeping, or peace enforcement) be needed in Central Asia or Afghanistan, Moscow seems intent of guaranteeing that the CSTO has pride of place, and leads the operation in question.

If Russia succeeds in securing such a guarantee, it might, under the right circumstances, try to establish such an operation without waiting for a formal UN resolution authorizing it to act. In such a situation, the Kremlin would doubtless stand on the agreement with the UN, claiming that it authorizes the CSTO to act within its sphere of competence. It is somewhat disconcerting that Russian officials told Secretary-General Ban that they are willing to send CSTO forces on peace operations beyond the borders of its member states.

The CSTO-UN pact, combined with the Kremlin’s apparent behind-the-scenes role in toppling Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration in Bishkek, suggests that Moscow will not give up on its dream of reestablishing its sphere of influence in Central Asia. The UN’s desire to play a constructive role in resolving Central Asian conflicts is laudable and is to be encouraged. At the same time, peacemaking based on sphere-of-influence geopolitics has potentially serious consequences. At the very least, it would probably reduce rather than enhance the UN’s ability to resolve conflicts and foster security. Thus, one has to wonder whether Secretary-General Ban got snookered when he agreed to cooperate with the CSTO?

Editor's note:  Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.