CSTO Rapid Reaction Exercises Get Off To Discouraging Start

by Roger McDermott

On August 26, a military exercise began in Moscow, marking the first official testing of the new Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF) created within the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Units from the defense, interior, and the emergency ministries will represent Russia during exercises that will take place in three separate stages. The initial phase in Moscow involves command-staff planning linked to the military-political aspects of coalition interaction, while military units will join the second and third stages, in Belarus in late September, and Kazakhstan in October.

The CORF exercises have been overshadowed by profound divisions within the CSTO concerning the creation, use, and development of the new force.

On July 29, a Russian military delegation visited Almaty in order to prepare the exercises, which were originally scheduled for August 19 to October 24, culminating at Kazakhstan's Matybulak training range. The one-week delay, partly due to doubts over Belarusian involvement, was compounded by the announcement in Tashkent that Uzbekistan had officially refused to participate.

Belarus and Uzbekistan Reluctant

The CORF is a Russian initiative intended to transform and expand by three to four times the existing CSTO rapid reaction dimension into a permanently ready, combat-capable force designed for intervention in crisis situations on the territory of CSTO member states. The objections by Belarus and Uzbekistan derive primarily from their economic and political differences with Moscow, but have been exacerbated by inadequate consultation and failure to achieve organizational consensus.

Minsk expressed doubts earlier this year concerning the new structure, at a time when its economic ties with Moscow were strained due to a Russian ban on imports of Belarusian dairy products. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka refused to attend the CSTO summit in Moscow on June 14, not only avoiding signing the agreement on the creation of the CORF, but sidestepping the rotating chairmanship of the organization.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who assumed the vacant chair, was palpably frustrated, venturing the view that perhaps "Lukashenka is tired of being president." Indeed, Lukashenka argued that his absence from the Moscow summit rendered any "collective" decision illegal.

While highlighting the deterioration of bilateral relations with Russia in recent years, Belarusian opposition to the new structure mostly related to its constitutional position, which prohibits sending its troops abroad, and to questions concerning the force's overall usefulness. However, such questions, doubts, and legal objections took deeper hold within the policymaking community in Tashkent.

The critical absence of Uzbek military and security forces from the current CORF exercises is entirely consistent with the policy adopted by Tashkent in response to the Russian initiative. It is the Uzbek stance that has sent a seismic shockwave throughout the organization and has exposed the arrogant way in which Moscow conducts foreign policy in relation to its allies within the CSTO.

Impending Crisis

Early signs of an impending crisis within the organization were first visible at an informal CSTO summit in Borovoye in late December 2008. Russian media ridiculed Uzbekistan's failure to send a delegation.

As Moscow's frustrations with Tashkent deepened even further, the Kremlin elaborated on this spin, explaining away Tashkent's objections to the CORF on the grounds that Uzbekistan has never been a particularly reliable partner to anyone, let alone Russia.

In reality, the decision to avoid attending the informal summit in Borovoye was the logical next step following Uzbekistan's withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Community (EES), which Tashkent had come to regard as a mechanism devised simply to promote the proposed customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

The idea of creating the new military and security forces was discussed in Borovoye, endorsed at a CSTO summit in Moscow on February 4, and the official agreement was signed in Moscow on June 14, in the absence of Lukashenka and Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. But although both presidents did attend a subsequent informal CSTO summit in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, on July 31-August 2, Moscow again failed to secure their support for the CORF.

Tashkent's objections hinge on the lack of consensus within the CSTO, and the related provision of the CSTO charter that states that in order to take such an important decision as creating the CORF, the assent of all members is required. Article 12 of the CSTO charter states that "decisions made by the collective security council, council of foreign ministers, council of defense ministers, and committee of secretaries of security councils on issues except procedural should be taken by consensus."

This also lies at the heart of Tashkent's objection to Russia opening a military base in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, under the aegis of the CSTO, since Uzbekistan was not consulted prior to Medvedev and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev announcing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on that base on August 1.

On August 18, Uzbek Defense Minister Kabul Berdiyev and U.S. General David Petraeus signed a bilateral agreement on a program of future military educational exchanges and training. That agreement was portrayed in Moscow as Tashkent's tit-for-tat response to the planned Russian base in Osh, rather than the culmination of a lengthy process.

After the formal announcement of Tashkent's outright objection to the planned new base, CSTO Secretary-General Nikolay Bordyuzha stated on August 6 that Moscow would discuss those plans with the Uzbek government. At the same time, he publicly backtracked on the MoU, claiming that it was not inevitable that the new base would open.

It is illuminating to note that Moscow generally seeks consensus only after announcing and negotiating a new initiative, such as opening a military base on Uzbekistan's border that arguably plays no practical security role. Indeed, Tashkent's elaboration of its "principled stance" on the CORF surprised Russian policy makers and has cast doubt on the entire venture.

A further reason for Uzbek skepticism is the ambiguity surrounding the real purpose of the CORF. Uzbek Foreign and Defense Ministry officials have raised numerous questions about the circumstances in which it might be deployed operationally, questions that have remained unanswered.

True, Tashkent had expressed interest at an early stage in the concept of a rapid reaction force, and floated proposals concerning its optimum structure. This mainly involved the idea that the CORF should reflect equality among the CSTO members, with each member contributing an equal number of troops. However, once Russia offered a division and a brigade (the 98th Airborne Division and the 31st Air-Assault Brigade), it soon became apparent that the CORF would be Russian-dominated. Kazakhstan offered a brigade from its air-mobile forces, while other CSTO members are expected to make smaller contributions.

While CSTO officials have indicated that they expect the first "live" stage of the exercise will take place as anticipated in Belarus, thereby implying confidence that Lukashenka will finally sign the agreement, no such breakthrough is in sight with regard to Uzbekistan. Arguably, the current exercise does, indeed, lack legitimacy, since the force has no legal basis in the absence of necessary consensus, while the June 14 document still awaits ratification by member states' parliaments.


Some tentative conclusions may be drawn from the difficult birth of the CORF.

The new structure will be dominated, trained, equipped, and logistically supported by Russia. Until all members sign the agreement, or join at a later date, the force will have only questionable legitimacy. Moreover, since there is a shortage of military commanders within Central Asia with operational experience, it is likely that any future operational deployment of the CORF in the region will be placed under a Russian commander. Unsurprisingly, a Russian general, first deputy chief of the CSTO joint staff, Lieutenant-General Oleg Latypov, was named to supervise the staff conducting the exercises.

The early indications are that the force will prove merely symbolic, rather than contribute in any meaningful way to regional security, while its ragtag and piecemeal formation, bypassing details such as "consensus," might also suggest that Medvedev's stated foreign policy intention that CSTO members should remain part of Russia's "privileged sphere of influence" is no more than wishful thinking.

Roger McDermott is a senior fellow in Eurasian military studies at the Jamestown Foundation. His most recent article on the Russian armed forces is “Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces And The Georgian War,” (“Parameters -- U.S. Army War College Journal,” Spring 2009). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.