“Look Not a Gift Tank in the Muzzle”
No. 1 2013 January/March
Sergey Minasyan

PhD in Political Science and is Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

What Are the Benefits of CSTO Membership for Armenia?

On October 15, 2012, Major General Artak Davtian, Chief of the Operations Division of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, spoke at a news conference about the results of Armenia’s largest-ever strategic command staff exercise, held alongside with large-scale maneuvers of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army. Davtian said the exercise simulated preventive missile strikes against military and economic facilities of an imaginary enemy. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the exercise involving nearly 45,000 men for the first time used advanced anti-tank missile systems, supplied just recently. Also, the possibility was considered of providing protection for the Karabakh troops with the Armenian S-300PS surface-to-air missile systems, stationed in the Syunik Region neighboring on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Davtian also briefed the media on the results of an exercise by the Collective Rapid Response Force (CRRF) of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), held for the first time in the territory of Armenia in mid September last year. The exercise involved elite rapid response units from all of the CSTO member-states. The idea is to engage the CRRF in operations for providing urgent military assistance to a CSTO member-state subjected to aggression by promptly redeploying allied mobile units to its territory. As one can easily guess, Armenia’s leadership views the country’s CSTO membership primarily in the context of ensuring regional interests and warding off crucial threats to national security.


Armenia is the sole CSTO member-state that can be directly involved in an inter-state military conflict. Central Asian allies are faced with mostly internal threats and challenges, related to maintaining political stability and preserving the existing regimes, as well as to struggle against trans-border extremist and terrorist organizations. Belarus, too, sees the CSTO as an instrument of military and political support for the incumbent authorities. And it is practically impossible to imagine a conventional aggression against Russia – a nuclear superpower. Moscow rather regards the CSTO as a mechanism to project military and political influence and presence in the post-Soviet space, and not as a component of the national security system.

So, Armenia is actually the sole CSTO member-state whose national security priorities fit in perfectly with the tasks of a traditional military and political bloc. Yerevan sees this structure as a military-political resource in the context of the main problem of the country’s post-Soviet development – the Karabakh conflict. It is this conflict and related regional problems that were the primary reason for testing the military and political potential of an organization that was still in the process of formation. The first example of countering external threats in the CSTO’s pre-history followed shortly after the conclusion of the Collective Security Treaty. In May 1992 it was the tough response from the Command of the CIS allied forces (the prototype of a future CSTO Staff) that prevented Turkey’s attempt to intervene in the Karabakh confrontation.

At present, this conflict is in fact the only one in the South Caucasus that has a certain potential of being “unfrozen.” Hence it is the main incentive for Armenia’s remaining a CSTO member. Also, it fuels Yerevan’s interest in making the alliance an effective military and political bloc.

Against the backdrop of continuing peace talks within the OSCE Minsk Group, Azerbaijan, still reluctant to agree with a two-decades-long political reality, keeps threatening it may resume combat operations. Although the conflict is frozen by virtue of the intricate military/political balance and the position of the international community, the arms build-up in the region indicates the risk of a flare-up of hostilities is still there. Baku relies on considerable revenues from trade in energy resources. The self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic enjoys Armenia’s unconditional assistance, which, for its part, uses the factor of CSTO membership and allied bilateral relations with Russia for maintaining the qualitative and quantitative military balance in the conflict zone. Also it counts on allies’ assistance in case of a threat to its security.

The CSTO membership is important to Armenia not only as an opportunity to acquire advanced types of armaments and upgrade military hardware at a big discount (for instance, the very same S-300 and anti-tank missile systems, armored vehicles, etc.). The advantages stemming from the CSTO military-political potential hold a no less prominent place in Yerevan’s calculations. The parties to the Karabakh conflict have accumulated large amounts of armaments and military hardware, so hostilities, should they begin again, may spill over across the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan, precisely the way it happened during the military phase of the conflict up to the conclusion of truce in May 1994. Moreover, Baku has warned that its army is prepared to deal missile and artillery strikes not against Nagorno-Karabakh alone, but also against Armenia.

Although this step may entail grave political consequences, from the purely military standpoint Baku may be really interested in spreading combat operations to Armenia’s territory. This would let the Azerbaijani army endanger the supply lines behind Karabakh’s forces, hinder the delivery of armaments, ammunition and fuel, upset the arrival of troops from Armenia for assistance to Karabakh and thereby let Azerbaijan use its numerical superiority more effectively.

Moreover, if Baku, aware of such political effects as forced involvement of Russia and the CSTO, refrains from such actions, the Armenian parties to the conflict may take full advantage of the situation. For instance, in case of a resumption of hostilities Yerevan may make a decision to arm Nagorno-Karabakh with some long-range missile and artillery systems for attacking critically important targets and industrial and energy facilities. In that case targets inside Azerbaijan may be subjected to practically “unpunishable” missile strikes from the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, because Baku will have to refrain from retaliatory strikes against similar targets in Armenia in view of the risk of undesirable political implications. Nagorno-Karabakh itself would inevitably come under missile and artillery fire, and this circumstance would not be a deterrent for the Armenian parties at all.

That the Armenian parties consider such a scenario very seriously was well seen in the May 9, 2012 military parade held in Stepanakert on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and the liberation of the strategically important Karabakh city of Shusha. That parade was the first public display of Armenia’s upgraded 9K72 Elbrus tactical missile complexes (Scud-B by NATO’s classification) with a fire range of 300 kilometers, and large-caliber 283-millimeter WM-80 Typhoon multiple rocket launchers with a fire range of over 120 kilometers. Yerevan and Stepanakert showed that under the conventional deterrence policy artillery strikes would be dealt not only against strategic military targets. Under the CSTO “umbrella” attacks can be mounted from the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh at Azerbaijan’s critically important energy facilities.

Armenia is an official guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh’s security, so it is quite obvious that in case Azerbaijan begins combat operations, they will almost inevitably spread to the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia. Automatically, the CSTO will provide assistance under Articles 4 and 6 of the Collective Security Treaty of May 15, 1992. The CSTO Charter (Article 3) posits it as an organization responsible for international and regional security in the post-Soviet space and, consequently, an instrument for maintaining peace and stability in the zone of the Karabakh conflict. Lastly, in accordance with Article 2 of the Collective Security Treaty the allies are obliged in the event of “a threat to international peace and security of states… to immediately activate the mechanism of joint consultations with the aim to coordinate their positions and adopt measures to eliminate a newly-emerged threat.” Failure to take adequate “measures to eliminate the emerged threat” to an allied country – Armenia – would entail irreversible consequences for this military and political bloc.

The political content of multilateral and bilateral (Armenian-Russian) security guarantees is far more important to Yerevan. Armenia’s CSTO membership and interest in the presence of Russia’s 102nd military base in its territory on beneficial terms arise, above all, from the Karabakh conflict. The Turkish factor plays a role, too, but for deterring Ankara Russia’s border guards on the Armenian-Turkish border would be enough: it is very hard to imagine a situation in which Turkey – a member of NATO – might dare make an incursion into the territory of a CSTO member-state and a military ally of Russia.

As a result, Azerbaijan is in a military and political zugzwang, which effectively prevents a resumption of war. A direct involvement of the CSTO (or even Russia alone) would make the likely outcome of combat operations in Nagorno-Karabakh more than predictable. Starting a war in Karabakh without spreading it to the territory of the Republic of Armenia (so as to provide no reasons for the CSTO mechanisms and bilateral Armenian-Russian obligations taking effect) would contradict military logic and put Baku in disadvantageous military strategic conditions. The more so since a situation like this will force Moscow to provide active assistance to its ally for maintaining military parity and to supply Armenia with all it needs until combat operations have been brought to an end in cooperation with the other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group.


From Yerevan’s standpoint, the main problem in relations with the CSTO is its amorphous structure and algorithm of operation. In the South Caucasus, the CSTO is, in fact, confined to a bilateral format, which reduces its capability to provide a full-fledged response to critical regional challenges and threats. It is noteworthy that the interests of Armenia, in contrast to those of some other members of the alliance, are practically identical to Russia’s. Being the sole member-state confronted with direct military threats, Armenia is Moscow’s possibly most motivated and convenient partner.

It is commonly believed that the CSTO is not one organization, but in fact three regional ones, formally united by Russia under one military and political “umbrella.” In the bilateral format, the organization operates not only in the South Caucasus. This is logically consistent with the trend towards creating subsystems of security (or regions of collective security) within the general CSTO framework. The CSTO member-states, except for Russia, do not view many challenges or threats in other regions as a menace to their own security or vital interests.

To Armenia, this type of situation is as obvious as it is undesirable. However, if the “main ally” attaches importance to the CSTO unification and is prepared to bear the political and economic burden of reconciling the approaches to security, Armenia will back Moscow in its approach. The CSTO leadership, too, has been very helpful in response. Statements by the CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha about regional security problems in the South Caucasus and the Karabakh conflict usually sound harsher and more specific than similar reactions by the Russian Foreign Ministry, as one could see from the scandal over the extradition of Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan in September 2012.

Yerevan has no illusion that, should a force-majeure situation emerge in the South Caucasus, Kazakhstan would order its naval ships to drop anchor off Baku, and/or Kyrgyzstan would dispatch mechanized infantry to the mountains of Karabakh. Yerevan would have shown greater interest in the problems of security in Central Asia (the Armenian army’s rapid response force and peace-keeping contingent are trained well enough to do that) if it were certain that its Central Asian allies would take symmetrical and proportionate actions in the Karabakh conflict. Therefore Yerevan has to consider the possibility of the CSTO’s assistance in addressing regional security problems in the South Caucasus mostly in the bilateral Armenian-Russian format.

Respectively, as regards the CSTO’s further development, for Armenia priority measures include enhancement of the effectiveness of the political decision-making mechanism and prompt reaction to critical and force-majeure situations. The point at issue is devising an algorithm of decision-making to use rapid response forces practically in the inertial mode. Also, Armenia attaches special importance to pre-emptive political measures to prevent a worsening of the conflict situation in the region. Specifically, they should include accommodation of the allies’ interests in conducting their foreign policies in the South Caucasus, in the international scene, in voting procedures in various international and regional organizations, and in systematic consultations and coordination efforts.

Yerevan believes that the most urgent measures must be taken to develop the CRRF’s potential. The specific nature of current regional threats in the South Caucasus and the fast-moving nature of modern combat require fast intervention and response measures. For instance, to make the CRRF more mobile it is feasible to store the necessary amounts of armaments and other military hardware in the territories of the participating countries, which would make it possible to airlift personnel armed only with light firearms within the tightest deadlines. The heavy armaments and equipment would be already in place and readily available. This is especially crucial for CSTO regional security in the South Caucasus because of its geographical and geopolitical features, and very specific relations between Armenia and Russia, on the one hand, and some countries in the region, on the other.

Yerevan would also like its allies to be more responsible in considering its interests as they implement military and technical cooperation with other countries in the South Caucasus. Most of its complaints refer to Russia, although at this point Azerbaijan’s purchases of Russian armaments do not make Armenia as nervous as before. It is important that Russia, while making good money by selling weapons to Azerbaijan, does not forget to maintain the military-technical balance in the region. It is obvious that failure to comply with bilateral and multilateral obligations to provide direct and effective military assistance to Armenia would strip Moscow of its reputation of a reliable partner, discredit the further operation of the CSTO, and result in the loss of the sole military and political ally in the South Caucasus.

Therefore Russia is keen to preserve the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, and works hard to maintain the military balance between the two countries. Naturally, Azerbaijan may keep fuelling the arms race, but the above-described pattern would force it to simultaneously pay for the qualitative and quantitative re-equipment of the Armenian army. In fact, Azerbaijan has to spend billions of petrodollars to conduct an arms race not with Armenia, but with Russia – its main provider of armaments. Armenia’s reaction to the situation is: “Look not a gift horse in the mouth,” or rather: “Look not a gift tank in the muzzle.”

Last year was possibly the most eventful in the entire history of the CSTO, and those events can make the alliance’s military component less amorphous. It is presumed that on the basis of the achieved agreements the Collective Rapid Response Force, the Collective Rapid Deployment Force and the Peacekeeping Force will soon be subordinated to one CSTO Collective Force command. Russia’s representative will be appointed chief of the CSTO Allied Staff. The CSTO would have unified systems of control, combat training and logistics, and Russia will provide assistance in the substantial rearmament of its allies. An agreement is being drafted on creating allied/unified air defense systems of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia.

There happened some fundamental changes in the military-political sphere, too. In June 2012, Uzbekistan suspended its CSTO membership. Yerevan hopes that will help increase effectiveness and controllability of the organization, and widen opportunities for prompt response to the emerging threats in the South Caucasus. It is common knowledge that Tashkent had in fact torpedoed many CSTO initiatives, specifically those concerning crisis settlement measures, which at a certain point forced establishing – largely at the initiative of Moscow and Yerevan – a decision-making mechanism to use CSTO structures in the absence of a consensus. Also, Uzbekistan’s attitude to the Karabakh conflict based on the idea of “Turkic solidarity” was dissonant (to put it mildly) with the position of Armenia – its military and political ally to which Tashkent had certain formal mutual liabilities in the sphere of defense and security.

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Countries join military-political alliances only if the latter can effectively protect their national security in all situations, including aggression by third countries. In the conditions of the continuing Karabakh conflict it is important for Armenia to be certain about the readiness of the CSTO member-states to fully comply with their liabilities as allies. Failure to extend effective and prompt assistance to an ally involved in an inter-state military conflict would discredit the CSTO as a military-political factor in the post-Soviet space and entail irreversible consequences for its future.

At the same time it is pretty clear to Yerevan that this option can hardly be implemented technically and politically by its allies in Central Asia and in Belarus. There remains Russia, which in fact makes the CSTO presence in the South Caucasus a sheer formality, for it is confined almost exclusively to bilateral Armenian-Russian cooperation. However, size matters even in politics. The Russian potential is sufficient to meet Armenia’s need for an external military-political resource to ensure its security. Moscow conducts a regional policy that is balanced and largely consonant with Yerevan’s own approaches, as seen from its responsible attitude to maintaining the military-technical balance in the zone of the Karabakh conflict. This is one of the most effective deterrents and guarantees against a resumption of hostilities.

In fact, the CSTO for Armenia is a shell covering the main reasons for Yerevan’s participation and interest – bilateral military-political cooperation and military guarantees from Russia.