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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 84. Is the CSTO Facing Collapse?

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This year Russia has watched their geopolitical position within the region sink from bad to worse. Now there is a new issue facing Moscow, with the Russian version of NATO, the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), facing a crisis of confidence.

After Azerbaijan called Russia's bluff in the Caucasus, the world now knows the core of the CSTO treaty is worthless. So what happens now, will the organisation disband, will an outside power like China take over the reins, or will it simply continue to evaporate slowly?


Episode Overview:

Part 1: The Marriage to Moscow (4:02)

  • Steven Pifer explains the attempt by Russia to shape the CSTO's structure to mirror that of NATO, but that it lacks anywhere near the integration and interoperability of NATO. This is despite the fact that Russia is the major military supplier of CSTO nations, which in theory should make it easier to achieve that integration.

  • We discuss the effects of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the members of the CSTO, including Belarus' increasing dependence on Russia to prop up the Lukashenko administration and Kazakhstan's seeming declining confidence in the CSTO.

  • We talk through the impact of Russia withdrawing Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh leading to renewed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, including fresh attacks on outside the disputed region on Armenian territory, and the lack of response to this attack on a CSTO member state.

  • We hypothesis about the future direction of the CSTO and Russia's intentions, including potential expansion and resourcing required to plausibly defend these nations. We pivot to China's increasing influence in the region and the potential for strategic realignment for Central Asia towards China and away from Russia.

Part 2: The Defiance of Alliance (31:58)

  • Temur Umarov notes that Russian influence in Central Asia has been in decline in recent years, in part due to a 'colonial' mindset and a perception that the region has few real alternatives to dealing with Russia, as well as the impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

  • We discuss the ongoing skirmishes between two CSTO member states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and that how the lack of intervention in these conflicts exposes the motivation for CSTO as a means to intervene in friendly nations.

  • We turn to the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan, in response to rising energy prices and discontent with former president Nursultan Nazarbayev's ongoing influence in the government. We discuss the rhetoric around a potential 'divorce' between Kazakhstan and Russia and the realities of the dynamics at play between both nations.

Part 3: Debt Traps and Cold Snaps (55:44)

  • Raffaello Pantucci takes us through how China' attitude to Central Asia has evolved in recent times, noting the rhetoric recognising that the region is Russia's backyard, as well as the Chinese motivation to stabilise Xinjiang through further opening up and development with Central Asia.

  • We discuss China's increasing presence in Central Asia, investing through the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as engaging with security assistance and training. We hypothesise about China's potential to get more involved in the domestic security of these nations, particularly around providing Chinese security forces to secure BRI projects and other strategic interests.

  • We point toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a potential usurper or replacement for the CSTO, as well as China's reluctance to embrace the security issues existing within the region.

  • We conclude with a hypothetical around if the Ukrainian conflict were to end, could Russian influence in the region be restored? We think through the implications for this changing dynamic and what China's role would be in that future state.


Episode Guests:

Steven Pifer

  • Affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University

  • Non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institute

  • Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs with responsibilities for Russia and Ukraine (2001-2004)

  • Former Ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000)

  • Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council (1996-1997)

Temur Umarov

  • Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  • His research is focused on Central Asian countries' domestic and foreign policies, as well as China's relations with Russia and Central Asian neighbours

  • He regularly contributes analysis on Central Asia for outlets including Foreign Policy

Raffaello Pantucci

  • Senior Associate Fellow of RUSI

  • Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

  • Author of Sinostan: China's Inadvertent Empire


The Red Line's CSTO Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of the CSTO and Russia's relations with Central Asia.


Sinostan: China's Inadvertant Empire

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Dictators Without Borders

Alexander A Cooley and John Heathershaw

The Eagle and the Trident: US-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times

Steven Pifer


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Howell Williams, Tyler Hood, Francouis Guerraz, Christopher Mastroianni, and Shannon A.



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