Thursday, February 18, 2010

Moscow’s CSTO Olive Branch to NATO

One year after the “reset” policy was announced by the Obama administration, aimed at improving relations with Russia, the negative characterization of NATO continues to feature prominently in the thinking and statements of senior Russian officials. During a recent interview with the Tajik weekly newspaper Vecherny Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), confirmed that the organization has no official contact with the Alliance. “We have offered interaction many times, in particular, on such pressing problems as Afghan drug trafficking and terrorism. Hopefully, the new administration of the Alliance will change this attitude toward NATO-CSTO contacts,” Bordyuzha said. He juxtaposed this with the development of closer ties between the CSTO, UN and OSCE in relation to counter-terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime (Interfax, February 4).

Bordyuzha advocates multilateral cooperation with NATO in countering terrorism and combating drug trafficking from Afghanistan. In his view, such cooperation might prove possible, but it largely depends on the political willingness within the Alliance to pursue closer relations with the CSTO. He points to the leaders of the CSTO being “gravely concerned” over the situation in Afghanistan, which he characterizes as “extremely critical and explosive and is catastrophically deteriorating,” which impacts on the security situation in Central Asia (ITAR-TASS, February 4).

Such political frustration is becoming sharper in the context of what Moscow views as its “successful” activation of the CSTO, ranging from forming the Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF) to its attempts to develop peace support capabilities within the organization and extend into other areas such as migration. Yet, Tashkent refuses to participate in the new force, and Moscow’s much hailed effort to open an additional “CSTO” base in southern Kyrgyzstan has been put on the backburner. While making every effort to portray the CSTO as a multilateral organization that is rooted in principles such as consensus, Moscow is aware that by pressing too hard on enhancing its military footprint in the region, it risks an open split with Tashkent (Interfax, January 27).

Other CSTO members may want closer relations with NATO, but are guided and influenced in their security thinking by Moscow. Bordyuzha believes that other members of the CSTO should follow the eagerness and compliance demonstrated by Kazakhstan, which has become the first Central Asian state to ratify the agreement on establishing the CORF. “It is symbolic that Kazakhstan, which initiated and hosted the signing of the agreement at the informal meeting of CSTO presidents in December 2008, was the first member country of the organization to ratify it,” Bordyuzha explained. These arguments appear unconvincing in Tashkent (Interfax, February 4).

On January 29, interior ministry officials from the CSTO member states agreed to conduct joint operations later this year that will target illegal migration and human trafficking. Following the formulation of a concept aimed at tackling illegal migration on a collective basis up to 2012, Illegal Immigrant 2010 is intended to demonstrate the seriousness the CSTO attaches to the issue. The coordinating council on illegal migration was formed in October 2007, and was designed to facilitate and improve the fight against the phenomenon and related crimes (ITAR-TASS, January 29).

On February 8, Bordyuzha said that the new Russian military doctrine, signed by President Dmitry Medvedev three days earlier, underscored the importance that Moscow attaches to the CSTO. The military doctrine, in his view, reaffirms Moscow’s readiness to come to the aid of any CSTO member subjected to a military attack. “The doctrine also envisages Russia’s participation in all components of the CSTO collective security system: the CORF and peacekeeping forces,” Bordyuzha said (ITAR-TASS, February 8).

While officials such as Bordyuzha present an image of Moscow desperately seeking stronger relations with the Alliance, NATO officials are regularly subjected to the erratic outbursts of the Russian Ambassador Dmitry Ragozin. His modus operandi is to attend meetings, then call a press conference predicated on telling journalists how effectively he corrected NATO officials. Ragozin’s latest outburst followed the announcement on February 5 that Romania will begin hosting US Ballistic Missile Defense interceptors in 2015. Commenting on US and Romanian officials going out of their way to assure Moscow that the interceptors posed no threat to Russia, Ragozin diagnosed: “It seems to be in line with Freud’s theory –it means they have some thoughts that the system could be targeted against Russia, otherwise why would they dissuade us about something we never asked about?” (Interfax, February 6).

Nevertheless, despite the various appeals for the Alliance to enter cooperative arrangements with the CSTO, it is politically difficult to disassociate the Moscow-led organization with Medvedev’s foreign policy aspirations for the West to recognize that Russia has a “sphere of privileged interests,” which predisposes some members of NATO to caution against such seemingly positive developments. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held an open hearing on February 2, on the “Current and Projected Threats to the United States,” during which Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence gave testimony. While noting an improvement in US-Russian relations, Blair said:

“I remain concerned, however, that Russia looks at relations with its neighbors in the former Soviet space –an area characterized by President Medvedev as Russia’s “zone of privileged interests”– largely in zero-sum terms, vis-a-vis the United States, potentially undermining the US-Russian bilateral relationship. Moscow, moreover, has made it clear it expects to be consulted closely on missile defense plans and other European security issues” (http://intelligence.senate.gov/100202/blair.pdf).

In reality, therefore, the CSTO remains a comparatively young organization, regarded even by its members as Moscow-dominated, which lends credibility to suspicions beyond the region that it serves predominantly as a foreign policy tool for Russia. In this context, while sharing concerns notably over Iran and Afghanistan, as well as transnational security threats, the Alliance prefers to deal with Russia directly. While its political leadership clings to neo-colonial aspirations, characterized as Russia’s aim to become a regional superpower, packaged as a “sphere of privileged interests,” and engage in the zero-sum game there can be little practical possibility that a new relationship will emerge anytime soon between NATO and the CSTO.