For an evolving CSTO, Kazakhstan is a pop quiz by Caroline Steel

As the new year began and protests erupted across Kazakhstan, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) elected unanimously to deploy troops in support of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in the alliance’s first military intervention since its founding. The CSTO, a collective security alliance comprising former Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Belarus, and Russia, mobilized swiftly to support the regime and contain the abrupt unrest—and as of January 19th, all 2,500 troops had withdrawn from the country, alleviating Western concerns of extended occupation. But why did Russia, as the core of the CSTO, choose this moment to act multilaterally, instead of acting alone, as it has done in similar crises?

On the one hand, CSTO action may simply have been the most convenient option for a Kremlin managing active operations on two fronts. Fresh from coordinated military exercises this fall, the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) was well positioned to field test combined small-scale operations in Kazakhstan. The low commitment, high reward investment furthered Russian interests and strengthened Kazakh loyalty to the Kremlin against a backdrop of Russian tensions with NATO and disputes over Ukraine. Nur-Sultan and Moscow share close ethnic and economic ties; and like Ukraine, Putin considers its southern neighbor a part of the historical Russian state. Intervention in Kazakhstan is a clear win for Russia, and a solid show of strength.

On the other hand, CSTO intervention marks another data point in a larger pattern of developing political and military capabilities—marking, in the words of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, “a solid precedent.” After decades of inaction and internal friction, the Kazakh mission seized on a convergence of geopolitical factors, aligning interests, and authoritarian fear. If Putin sees a future in the role of collective defense in Russian security strategy, Kazakhstan was the perfect proving ground.

Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, CSTO troops, equipment, and military exercises have steadily increased. The CSTO has played a minor but nascent role in regional politics, spearheading counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity operations, where cooperation has yielded relative success. In 2016, the Organization issued a strategy predicated on international cooperation and dialogue. In 2020, Collective Security Council (CSC) leaders reiterated aspirations of internal cohesion and international recognition, in response to the 2020 unrest in Belarus, Kyrgyz protests, and Nagorno-Karabakh crisis—in which, notably, it did not intervene.

For Moscow, a stronger CSTO can yield several benefits. As a formal collective military alliance that restricts parallel affiliations, it pushes back against encroaching NATO expansion, which Putin considers an imminent threat to Russian security and sovereignty. By the same token, the CSTO is a handy vehicle for propping up Moscow-friendly regimes and increasing bilateral relations, which Russia capitalizes on to install foreign bases. Such an “authoritarian regionalism” compliments a Russian strategy of maintaining status quo autocracies friendly to Moscow, and meeting an era of multipolarity from a position of relative strength. The CSTO also plays an increasing role in securing Moscow’s Central Asian flank, especially in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with frequent military exercises on the Tajik-Afghan border and cooperation on transnational threats. Finally, a robust CSTO augments Russian legitimacy, fortifying a narrative of Putin as an international diplomat, rather than a tyrant.

But the alliance faces ongoing challenges as a serious regional and global contender. In an overcrowded Central Asian playing field, it struggles to attract new members and remain economically competitive. A lack of political cohesion in critical policy areas hamstrings military cooperation, which Russia failed to galvanize in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. The organization is structurally asymmetrical: as the biggest CSTO power by far, Russia contributes a majority of the organization’s troops and resources.  Ironically, outsized Russian influence also weakens CSTO legitimacy, and NATO does not engage with its Eurasian counterpart directly. It is a “Warsaw Pact-lite” with all the baggage and none of the brawn.

Complete withdrawal from Kazakhstan is an encouraging indicator, but not a reliable benchmark, of future CSTO designs. Moscow is testing the waters: with the US gone from Afghanistan, Western holdings in Central Asia are minimal, and Kazakhstan is friendly and familiar ground. In this light, CSTO mobilization is less military intervention, and more opportunistic exercise, a deliberate step toward collective consolidation.

Both the CSTO and NATO have now invoked their respective security clauses once—though the CSTO is no NATO, and certainly no Warsaw Pact. It can, however, allow the Kremlin to cement security partnerships, prevent regional rebalancing, and delicately match growing Chinese economic expansion. If developing CSC rhetoric and resources are anything to go by, this chapter may mark a subtle shift in Russian regional calculus—but Kazakhstan was an easy pop quiz. Future actions will demonstrate whether or not the CSTO will also withstand the greater test of time.

Author: Caroline Steel is an external contributor to Navanti News. She is a Young Global Professional with the Forward Defense initiative at the Atlantic Council, where she supports projects on defense trends and hybrid threats. Caroline wrote previously for the American Security Project, where her research focused around gray zone warfare and transnational networks in the Middle East and central Asia. She studied Arabic at the Institut français du Proche-Orient in Beirut, and international affairs and literature at Durham University, where she wrote her dissertation on Russian security dynamics. She draws on experience in data and design to add depth to her work in the political realm.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Navanti Group or its partners.