U.S. Keeping Its Distance From Russian-Led Security Bloc

The Russian-led post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), held its annual summit on September 23, and at the top of the agenda was security in the post-Soviet space following the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan starting in 2014. Russia and the Central Asian members of the organization are worried that instability from Afghanistan could spill over into their countries, and are working on boosting security to the border regions. But their efforts to engage the United States and NATO in CSTO efforts – a call that the organization reiterated – has provoked only skepticism from Washington.

Just before the summit, Almazbek Atambayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, visited NATO headquarters. Kyrgyzstan held the rotating presidency of the CSTO (though at the summit handed it over to Russia), and in his meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Atambayev promoted the idea of cooperation between the CSTO and NATO. “As the president of the Krygyz Republic, being the chairman of the CSTO in the light of redeployment of ISAF and the exit of forces at the end of the ISAF meetings I suggested that we should build an enhanced cooperation between CSTO and NATO,” he said after the meeting.

At the CSTO summit in Sochi, Russia, the group’s official statement (in Russian) called for “the development of cooperation between the CSTO and other international and regional organizations with the aim of increasing its international authority and resolution of the tasks that stand before the organization. 

The CSTO’s wooing of the western alliance is somewhat at odds with its reputation as a Russian “anti-NATO.” But the group, as well as Russia specifically, has long called for coordination between Western- and Russian-led efforts in Afghanistan – especially in fighting drug trafficking.

In public, the U.S. response has been that while not against such cooperation in principle, the plans simply haven’t aligned. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Gordon, asked by a Russian reporter in 2012 about claims that “the U.S. is the main obstacle between the cooperation between NATO and CSTO,” responded: 

I don’t think we have a principled opposition to NATO cooperation with the CSTO. When there are cases in which the two organizations can cooperate in a mutually beneficial way, they should. So we treat those questions on a case by case basis and have no ideological opposition to it, but it’s just a practical question of whether there are in fact areas in which these two very different organizations can cooperate.

In another interview with a Russian reporter in 2011, the State Department’s top counternarcotics official William Brownfield explained the lack of cooperation by the fact that “we were not invited to join the CSTO mechanism.”

But in private, as revealed by Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables, U.S. officials are dismissive of the CSTO, and believe that efforts to foster formal ties between NATO and the CSTO have the ulterior motive of trying to bestow relevance on the nascent organization. In 2009, NATO’s Rasmussen was preparing to propose formal engagement with the CSTO, but U.S. officials successfully blocked the move, believing that doing so would legitimize “a waning organization” that “has proven ineffective in most areas of activity.”

After a 2010 meeting with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bodyuzha, the U.S. embassy in Moscow wrote a cable describing Bordyuzha as “condescending” and “true to his background as a career KGB/FSB official.” It concluded: “If the Russian government is serious about promoting the possibilities of CSTO cooperation with NATO, they will need a better front man than Bordyuzha.” Another cable from Moscow the same year recommended that “Russia will likely continue to press for U.S. and NATO counternarcotics cooperation with the CSTO; our position should be that we are open to counternarcotics proposals from CSTO while deflecting Russia’s desire for formal recognition of the organization.”

The U.S.’s consistently dismissive attitude toward the CSTO contrasts with its on-again-off-again interest in the other new Eurasian security bloc, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Early in the last decade the U.S. sought (pdf) official observer status in the group, and as recently as 2011 U.S. officials publicly mooted formal cooperation with the SCO.

Unfortunately the 2010 cables are the most recent we have to judge U.S. officials’ true feelings regarding the CSTO. Given the recent energy Russia has dedicated to the group, the U.S, may no longer consider it a “waning” organization. But there is still little indication that Washington is any more inclined to engage with this potential rival.

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