csto summit

Russia and Collective Security: Why CSTO Is No Match for Warsaw Pact

May 27, 2020
Dmitry Gorenburg

This month 65 years ago, the Soviet Union announced the formation of the Warsaw Pact. For the next three and a half decades, the pact remained the security alliance of the Communist world, designed to counter NATO in Europe, before becoming defunct in 1991. Almost immediately, however, post-Soviet Russia laid out a new collective defense organization. Officially known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), that post-Soviet pact has proved to be no match for the Warsaw Pact. Neither CSTO nor the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the other collective security pact of which Russia is a member, pose a real threat to the U.S. and its allies above and beyond the threat posed by their individual member states.

The Warsaw Pact was formally founded on May 14, 1955, as Moscow’s answer to the integration of West Germany into NATO. Its members included the Soviet Union and its East European satellite states: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Albania was initially a member, but withdrew in the 1960s after siding with China during the Sino-Soviet split. The pact obligated member states to mutual defense, allowed for member states to station troops on each other’s territory and set up a unified military command under Soviet control. During the 35 years of its existence, the pact only undertook one operation as an organization—the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, though Hungary’s withdrawal from the pact in 1956 was one of the proximate causes of the Soviet invasion of that country. Both of these actions were practical applications of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which justified intervention in any socialist state if socialist rule was considered to be under external or internal threat. The pact’s dissolution in July 1991 was a key signal that the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe had been broken and that the Cold War was truly over.

After the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union, leaders of several of the newly independent states signed a new collective security treaty. Although the treaty was signed in 1992, no practical actions were taken until the early 2000s, when six states formed a new organization on its basis, imaginatively called the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Through this new organization, the member states sought to enhance the existing treaty’s mutual security commitments to develop a standing organization that enhanced security cooperation through regular exercises, while aspiring to further integration including an eventual joint command structure. However, the organization was largely moribund for several years after its founding. Although it became more active in the last decade, organizing regular and increasingly frequent military exercises since 2012, it still does little more than provide a venue for cooperation among the military forces of its member states.

As the dominant force in the CSTO, Russia sets the agenda for the organization. Russia sees the organization as primarily a vehicle for integration in the military sphere, rather than a real military alliance. In other words, Russia does not really expect militarily valuable support from the other organization members in the event of a conflict. Nevertheless, the CSTO does provide value for Moscow. The CSTO helps to justify Russian basing abroad, while at the same time providing a constraint on foreign basing in CSTO member states. Russian bases in Central Asia and Armenia are justified as contributing to the CSTO’s multinational missions. At the same time, according to Richard Weitz, the requirement that non-member foreign military basing in CSTO member states be approved by other members essentially gives Russia a veto over the placement of NATO bases in member states. The CSTO also ties current and future military elites of member states to Russia, both through experience in joint exercises and because member state militaries tend to send their officers to Russia for advanced training.

If we compare the CSTO to the Warsaw Pact, a number of similarities and differences emerge. The most obvious similarity is that both organizations are dominated by its largest member. Moscow called the shots in the Warsaw Pact; it similarly sets the parameters for cooperation in the CSTO. The Warsaw Pact was always led by a Soviet general. For most of its history, the CSTO has been led by a Russian security official. However, CSTO member states have far more independence from Russia than Warsaw Pact members did from the Soviet Union. Since 2017, its secretary general has been selected from among all the members on a rotating basis. Russia may be the strongest power in its region, but as has been made clear on numerous occasions, it cannot dictate policy to the other members. For example, in Armenia in 2018, Russia could not even reliably prevent the removal of a leader who is considered a friend of Putin. It also rejected an intervention to assist Kyrgyzstan, a CSTO member state, against an internal uprising even when the president of the state explicitly appealed for such assistance from the CSTO. By comparison, the Soviet Union not only used Warsaw Pact forces to quash the rebellion in Czechoslovakia, but also used the threat of an intervention to pressure Poland to introduce martial law in 1981. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, membership in the CSTO does not preclude participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

However, the CSTO is a much weaker organization in military terms than the Warsaw Pact was. According to NATO histories, in 1984 the Warsaw Pact ground forces had six million soldiers serving in 192 divisions, as compared to 4.5 million NATO soldiers serving in 115 divisions. Approximately one-third of Warsaw Pact forces were Soviet, while approximately twenty percent of NATO forces were from the United States. The Warsaw Pact also had a significant preponderance of battle tanks, artillery and attack helicopters. At present, NATO member states have a total of approximately 3.5 million soldiers, while CSTO member states’ militaries have just over one million soldiers. About 40 percent of current NATO troop strength comes from the United States, while approximately 85 percent of CSTO troop strength comes from Russia.

Like the Warsaw Pact and like NATO, the CSTO treaty includes provisions for a joint military command that would act to defend its members from external aggression. However, this command structure has never been organized and exists only on paper. The most active part of the organization is its Rapid Reaction Force, which was established in 2009 and now comprises approximately 25,000 high readiness troops assigned by the member states. The majority of these forces come from Russia and Kazakhstan, although all member states contribute some forces. Although they have never been deployed for a real-life operation, these troops engage in regular exercises and are considered among the more capable forces in each country.

The CSTO is not the only collective security organization of which Russia is a member. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has long largely served as a venue for China and Russia to interact on various issues in a multilateral format. Much like the CSTO, its organizational aspects were largely irrelevant, and security often took a back seat to economic agendas. This has changed in recent years, especially since the addition of India and Pakistan as members in 2017 created a number of new power dynamics among the members. On the security front, counter-terrorism remains the most important agenda item, with the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure being the most well-organized security body of the organization. Its recent agreement on cooperation with the U.N.’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate has added legitimacy to this structure. The SCO also organizes a number of regular military exercises, most importantly the Peace Mission series of counter-terrorism exercises that have taken place approximately biannually since 2001 and have gradually expanded to include more countries and more involved tasks.

Russia has also focused on developing a joint air defense system (JADS) with other former Soviet states. This is another system that was created in the early days of the post-Soviet period and then remained largely inactive for many years. However, Russia has recently sought to activate development of this network, announcing the completion of a joint air defense system with Belarus in 2016 and currently working on similar networks with Kazakhstan and Armenia. Future systems are to be developed with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. For Russia, closer integration with partner countries’ air defense networks will improve warning and response times for its forces. However, the poor quality of the other member states’ air defense forces suggests that the actual benefit of joint systems to Russian security may be limited. Instead, the main goal may be to legally justify information sharing and the placement of Russian air and missile defense assets on foreign soil.

What does Russia’s participation in present-day collective security organizations mean for the United States and its allies? NATO has long refused to deal directly with the CSTO, preferring to reach out to individual member states in order to avoid legitimizing the organization. Overall, none of the three organizations discussed above pose a real threat above and beyond the threat posed by its individual member states. Both the CSTO and the SCO are too organizationally weak and insufficiently integrated to serve as a capability multiplier for its members in the way that NATO does for the United States and its European allies. Furthermore, because of the weakness of their military forces and in some cases because of political dysfunction and internal weakness, the other member states of the CSTO are of limited value to Russia as military allies. Even Belarus, the strongest of these states, is primarily valuable for its geographic location between Russia and NATO territory, rather than because of its forces. As we contemplate the 65th anniversary of the formation of the Warsaw Pact, it is clear that from a military perspective, Russia is more alone now than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.


Dmitry Gorenburg

Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist at CNA and an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

Photo by kremlin.ru.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.