Collective Security Treaty Organization: Why are Russian Troops in Kazakhstan?

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One matchstick is enough to burn the house down, especially when gas is involved. Shortly after New Year’s Eve, protests began in Kazakhstan, the biggest and economically strongest state in the Central Asian region, over rising gas prices. The protests have transformed from mere price reduction demands into anti-government riots. A decade ago, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan’s neighbor, experienced a similar scenario when thousands went on the streets to protest against a rise in utility rates, including cellphone services. In the aftermath of these protests, Kyrgyzstan ended up with a new government and constitution. How the situation will resolve in Kazakhstan is yet to be seen. In 2019, there was a change in presidential leadership when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over from Nursultan Nazarbayev the longstanding leader of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. However, grievances against Nazarbayev’s three-decade rule and his continuing de facto authority have fed into the protesters’ anger. Protestors are demanding, not only lower fuel prices, but also an end to widespread governmental corruption and general political liberalization.

On January 5th, President Tokayev requested assistance from the Eurasian inter-governmental military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia responded quickly, to his request, and sent its troops the next day. The question of whether this troop deployment complied with the law of intervention by invitation in general, and the CSTO Treaty in particular, is of interest not only to lawyers but also to the citizens of the region. This post will briefly discuss the CSTO regime and the extent to which it permits the Russian military to enter its Central Asian ally.

’Big Brother’

The crisis in Kazakhstan is not merely a domestic or regional issue. It is also a matter for international lawyers, who should examine the situation more closely. Of particular interest is the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the Eastern counterpart to NATO), and Russia’s decision to send its troops to Kazakhstan. Questions like why Putin sent troops to Kazakhstan, but not to Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, or even Armenia during earlier uprisings are left to political scientists. International lawyers can instead critically assess the legality of Russia’s actions and what role international law plays in treaty-based collective self-defense clauses.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional alliance of six post-Soviet states (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), is an international organization that, inter alia, has a broad approach to peacekeeping missions. As mentioned, Tokayev promptly asked the CSTO for additional forces to manage the crisis, and Russia immediately reacted. While Kyrgyzstan and other allies took several days to decide on whether to send their peacekeepers to Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation rapidly reacted and already dispatched almost 3000 troops and the “big brother” is ready to send more. This is the first time in the history of the CSTO that its provisions on protection and collective security have been invoked.

International law and the CSTO regime

While the Kremlin and Tokayev blame unnamed external actors for the protests in Kazakhstan without giving any supporting evidence for this claim, it is unclear whether Tokayev’s invitation to foreign troops to protect the country from potential foreign aggression was authorized by the CSTO regime. The CSTO Treaty in its Article 4 says that an act of aggression (an armed attack that threatens security, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty) against one of the member states will be considered as a collective act of aggression on all member states of the CSTO. Tokayev’s narrative is to brand the demonstrators foreign ‘terrorists’ and this narrative has allowed the Kazakh government to bring in military support from abroad under the treaty. Article 4 further adds that upon request of a ‘victim state’ other state members will provide all necessary assistance, including military assistance and any other means available to them in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Article 51 allows for the use of force in cases of individual or collective self-defense and Tokayev exercised his right to request assistance as he remains the head of the Kazakh government. The commonly agreed criteria for invoking the right to self-defense are the presence of an ongoing or immediate armed attack, necessity, and proportionality. These criteria are equally applicable to individual and to collective self-defense. Yet, two additional criteria are inherent specifically to collective self-defense. The International Court of Justice in its 1986 Nicaragua decision stated that the ‘victim’ state must declare itself to be the victim of an armed attack (para. 195) and that the ‘victim’ state must request military aid in response (para. 199).

So, the pressing question now is who is actually attacking Kazakhstan, and from whom should it be protected? The use of collective self-defense in the absence of external aggression is not codified in the CSTO Treaty and as mentioned, neither Tokayev nor Russia provided evidence that Kazakhstan is under attack by a foreign state. Nevertheless, the Kremlin still assumes that foreign-supported domestic turmoil in Kazakhstan is a collective security threat – but are these assumptions legally relevant to Russia’s decision to deploy troops for the first time under the CSTO?

Coming back to the Nicaragua decision, the Court determined that an ‘intervention is allowable at the request of the government’ (para 246). State practice shows that the principle of non-intervention does not prohibit certain limited operations of foreign troops by invitation. There is, however, a scholarly debate about the legitimacy of an invitation to influence non-international armed conflicts and domestic turmoil. The Institut de Droit International in its 2011 Rhodes Resolution (Art 3(1)) stated that military assistance is prohibited ‘when its object is to support an established government against its own population’. Moreover, the recent interventions into Iraq and Syria show that invitation alone is not a sufficient ground for intervention – the collective self-defense card has usually been played alongside invitations. Perhaps this can be an explanation of why media outlets in Russian, as well as the press releases of Russia’s foreign ministry and CSTO Collective Security Council, seem to focus not on the invitation made by Tokayev, but on the general threat of foreign aggression to the collective security of the six allies.

Another explanation of putting Tokayev’s invitation in the background might be the fact that the CSTO, and Russia in particular, acted differently during the previous attempts to mobilize CSTO troops in other countries and as mentioned, this was the first collective security operation by the Organization. In 2010, during a revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev tried to request military support from the CSTO, but the Organization was not reactive enough, and he was overthrown in a span of several days. Some months later, however, the newly established Kyrgyz government officially requested the CSTO to send troops to the South region to help quell ethnic clashes between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz. Back then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev denied the request arguing that it was a purely domestic issue and it is legally impossible to send CSTO troops: ‘The criteria for using CSTO forces are violations by a state or non-state entity of a CSTO member state’s borders. In other words, an attempt to seize power from the outside. It’s under these circumstances that we determine an attack has occurred against the entire CSTO’. In 2021, Armenia appealed to the CSTO, accusing Azerbaijan of invading their territory. In response, Russia offered assistance in border delimitation and demarcation.

But what makes the current situation in Kazakhstan different? Generally speaking, nothing, except political interests). However, regardless of the uncertainties related to the legitimacy of an invitation to deal with domestic protests in the absence of foreign aggression, there is another loophole, through which the Kremlin tries to sneak in. The CSTO system includes another important document: the Collective Rapid Reaction Force’s agreement. This agreement allows for actions against international terrorism, security of governmental and military objects, and ‘other tasks determined by the Collective Security Council’, which permits using the Reaction Force for basically any purpose. Russia has already claimed that its primary task is to guard and secure nationally-important objects and infrastructure. Further, Article 4 of this Agreement says that in case of the decision to deploy the Collective Rapid Reaction Force, the UNSC will be immediately notified. As of now, there is no available information on whether such a notification has been sent to the UNSC.

Concluding remarks

The situation is still rapidly evolving and there is not enough available information to support claims that Kazakhstan is full of foreign terrorists who should be fought. Also, it is unclear under which circumstance Tokayev made the request (some political experts claim that this invitation was made under duress from the Kremlin). But it is hard to claim that the Russian troops are illegal on Kazakh soil. While the CSTO Treaty does not provide for opportunities to assist a ‘victim state’ without foreign aggression, the Collective Rapid Reaction Force’s agreement permits the troop deployment in cases of a unanimous agreement of the Organization’s Collective Security Council. This unanimous agreement has been reached. Kyrgyzstan was the last one to deliver its decision on whether to send troops. After multiple protests against participating in the joint CSTO mission to Kazakhstan in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, the parliament still decided to send 150 soldiers. Now, we can only observe how the situation unfolds and what the CSTO peacekeepers will do to save the country from ‘foreign terrorists and enemy invasion’.

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Vinícius Barros says

January 13, 2022

Great article! In the end, the problem is the disclosure of public reasons and evidence. Governments do not show evidence that the local group is not a foreigner because the uncertainty is in their favour. The same happened in Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction (about evidence, not about intervention by invitation).

sava says

January 14, 2022

So far foreign governments (usually one) were invited to intervene in a domestic unstable situation, generally referred to as internal armed conflict/civil war. The situation in Kazahstan undoubtedly reached the gravity of serious unrest and threatened to overthrow the government. I don't see why (legally) the highest dignitary in Kazahstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, could not invite Russia alone or the whole alliance to intervene, even though I personally don’t support this idea. If the state alone is not capable of fighting the unrest, it is ineffective and the government should resign. Otherwise, we could tome to a point that even the worst government would persist with the support of a foreign friend.