Final stage of the Search 2017 exercise in Armenia (Source: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)
In October and November 2017, Central Asia and the Caucasus witnessed yet another set of Russian-led military exercises under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Codenamed “Combat Brotherhood-2017,” the exercises engaged the CSTO’s entire collective forces—from Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—and reportedly involved 12,000 personnel and 1,600 armored vehicles, hardware, and aircraft. Given Combat Brotherhood-2017’s massive scale and scope, many interpret the exercises as the southern component of the Russian-Belarussian Zapad-2017 strategic combat maneuvers held in Eastern Europe in September 2017.
Combat Brotherhood-2017 in Focus
In 2016, the Russia-dominated CSTO Security Council reconceptualized the alliance’s annual multi-scenario exercises by adopting a single, overarching objective of improving the command-and-control (C2) structure. This change suggests that the complete cycle of annual exercises will be integrated under operative command and planning, which CSTO Secretary General Yuri Khachaturov of Russia has stressed will enable the bloc to tackle the full spectrum of challenges it might face in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the foreseeable future. At the Combat Brotherhood-2017 commencement ceremony, CSTO Chief of Joint Staff Anatoliy Sidorov of Russia noted that this approach aims “to embody the three patterns of potential operational environments: pre-conflict situation, intensive warfare stage, and post-conflict peacekeeping mission.” Devised as future crises foresight, the Combat Brotherhood-2017, thus, correspondingly featured a special-tactical exercise called “Search-2017,” a joint special-operation training called “Interaction-2017,” and situational-peacekeeping maneuvers called “Unbreakable Brotherhood-2017.”
The military drills formally commenced on October 3 with Search-2017, which gathered special forces and reconnaissance units from CSTO member states in the Rostov oblast in southern Russia. Two days later, the troops and their command centers practiced a prompt redeployment to Armenia’s Bagramyan training facility to initiate the key element of the military games. According to the exercise’s fictional scenario, once the armed group that had infiltrated Armenia was identified and localized, reconnaissance missions were conducted, and military intelligence special forces engaged the enemy units.
From October 7-15, the maneuvers under Search-2017 transformed into the rapid response-oriented operation codenamed Interaction-2017. This stage comprised the main phase of combat maneuvers, which simultaneously occurred in Armenia’s Bagramyan and Russian-military-affiliated Alagyaz training facilities. Interaction-2017 was designed specifically to utilize the CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), a combined force of reportedly 17,000 troops that has been in operation since 2009. According to CSTO planning, in the event of a crisis, the CRRF is to be reinforced by the joint Armenian-Russian battle group, a combination of Russia’s 102nd base and Armenia’s 5th Corps. On this matter, Armenian lawmakers ratified a package regulating the functions, command system, and responsibilities of the joint ground force in early October 2017. During the Interaction-2017 drills, the Armenian-Russian joint forces played such a large role that their involvement rivaled that of ordinary CRRF battalions.
The next phase of the joint military exercises, dubbed Unbreakable Brotherhood-2017, took place on October 16-20 in Kazakhstan and involved over 1,500 servicemen of the CSTO Collective Peacekeeping Operation Force (CPOF). The fictional scenario stipulated that the peacekeeping mission extended “beyond of the region of CSTO commitments” in a situation reminiscent of the current Syrian operative environment. For the first time in CSTO practice, Moscow proactively applied the convergence of situational awareness measures—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)—with information and psychological warfare capabilities.
While Combat Brotherhood-2017’s three official phases concluded in October, a final, lessons-learned exercise took place on November 10-20 when roughly 5,000 troops rehearsed an antiterrorist stage. The troops were tasked to challenge an imaginary terrorist incursion from Afghanistan in order to test the interoperability of the organization’s rapid response units. This exercise culminated in the combat launch of the 9K720 Iskander-M short-range missile system dispatched by Russia’s Central Military District command.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Importance to Russia
From Moscow’s perspective, the CSTO is the most critical and legitimate instrument to pursue hard power projection in the post-Soviet space. To this end, Armenia and Tajikistan play the special role of regional pivots; by hosting large Russian military contingents, the 102nd and 201st bases, Armenia and Tajikistan cement Moscow’s regional dominance.
Aside from providing geo-strategic advantages to Moscow, Armenia and Tajikistan are also considered the most likely areas where CSTO forces might be practically applied. Tajikistan’s security environment has grown increasingly volatile due to terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan, and Armenia feels that it faces an “existential threat” from Turkey due to its lingering conflict with Turkey’s close partner, Azerbaijan. The widespread narrative of Turkey’s “military threat” to Armenia, however, is somewhat overstated. Moscow, in particular, deliberately exploits these sentiments to influence Armenian public opinion about the country’s security environment and foreign policy options. Moscow’s motivation to “weaponize” this narrative is clear; Armenia is the only “bay” in the South Caucasus where Russia may permanently anchor. Following this logic, it is no surprise that the CSTO named the fictional adversary in the Interaction-2017 drills “Osmania,” a clear allusion to the House of Osman, or the Ottoman dynasty.
Having gained endorsement in February 2009 at the CSTO Dushanbe summit, the CRRF represents the alliance’s main joint task force and serves the primary function of countering limited military aggression against member states. On a secondary level, the CRRF also handles counterterrorist and counterinsurgency related tasks. The force, however, suffers a range of tactical shortfalls. For instance, limited transportation capabilities of some CSTO allies—such as Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Tajikistan—severely hamper the CRRF’s operational efficiency and, in some cases, render the task force useless. As a result, Russia assumes the responsibility of staging rapid-response operations in areas of strategic security interests. Another weakness of the CRRF is its composition diversity: allies assign units to the force with varying levels of readiness, and there is inconsistent tactical doctrines as well as insufficient coordination to reconcile such differences. The lack of enthusiasm among allies for fulfilling commitments should a crisis erupt is an entirely separate issue. Overall, the coalescence of these outlined vulnerabilities makes high interoperability of the CRRF somewhat elusive.
Russia’s Aspirations for the CSTO
On a declaratory level, Moscow’s aspiration to attain recognition of the CSTO as a viable military alliance akin to NATO is nothing new. For years, Russian senior officials have expressed the view that the borders of the Caucasus and Central Asia are Russia’s borders as well. They meant that, because these regions faced broad challenges, Moscow had to retain a formidable military presence. Thus, the forward defense strategy was predicated on the belief that the defense of Russia’s borders starts at the CSTO edges in Caucasus and Central Asia. This logic explains why Moscow is sensitive to political developments in countries that are part of CSTO. Given Russia’s desire to entrench the authoritarian-leaning regimes in the post-Soviet space and to prevent any prospect of democratization in the CSTO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unequivocally emphasized that Russia “will never let Colour Revolution-style developments happen in CSTO-member republics.”
The Kremlin wants the United Nations to name the CSTO as the legitimate security organization for former Soviet space, conferring on it a monopoly over peacekeeping responsibilities on Russia’s southern periphery. To do so, the UN Security Council must certify the alliance’s peacekeeping capabilities and readiness. To this end, at the commencement of Combat Brotherhood-2017, CSTO Secretary General Khachaturov underscored the importance of the UN specialists’ assessments of the bloc’s preparedness and declared that the UN has a genuine interest in authorizing the CSTO to carry out international peacekeeping missions. On the other hand, Khachaturov often complains that NATO shows no intention of coordinating or cooperating with the Russia-led bloc. In Moscow’s strategic consciousness, the CSTO serves as a tool to impede NATO’s enlargement from the West and to obstruct China’s politico-military expansion from the East. More structurally, the CSTO’s current adaptation aligns with the principles of Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s purported “doctrine.” It entails a set of joint air/missile defense systems and rapid-response combat groups arranged between Russia and its satellites. From the strategic point of view, these undertakings provide an institutional platform to build up a system of military defense beyond Russia’s borders.
As Russia seeks to absorb its allies’ military infrastructure, Moscow’s overriding political goal for Combat Brotherhood-2017 was to demonstrate to the West that it is capable of staging alliance-level multifunctional operations. This messaging is of particular note considering the amplifying calls for the CSTO to carry out a peacekeeping mission in Syria under a UN mandate and Vladimir Putin’s plea for a UN peacekeeping presence in Ukraine. On a military-tactical level, the key agenda of Combat Brotherhood-2017 was to identify the inhibitors in the path of developing an integrated battlespace and maximizing the use of C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).
However, after almost 16 years of existence, the CSTO still hardly qualifies as a full-fledged collective security alliance, while its purpose remains ambiguous. As its adherence to collective defense commitments often appears only on paper, the CSTO primarily remains a vehicle for Moscow’s geopolitical consolidation in the security deficient South Caucasus and Central Asia. Setting aside the demonstrative aspect of CSTO activities, relations between the allies are far from cooperative. Persisting irritants within the organization reflect the absence of a shared security vision and threat assessment among members, while the region’s current politico-security atmosphere magnifies “unhealthy competition.” The traditionally strained relationship between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the profound dissention among member states with regard to the Armenia-Azerbaijan confrontation offer just two examples of such tension. Ultimately, dissonance within the bloc is unsurprising; member states have little in common other than 70 years of Soviet past underpinned by Russia’s manipulative means to keep the bloc afloat. Frictions between these so-called allies will likely only intensify and, in the case of any real military crisis, could lead to the stagnation, or even collapse, of Russia’s beloved alliance.
The viability of the CSTO, its often-questioned credibility, and its relevance to Eurasia’s shifting security environment remain highly uncertain. Regardless of whether Russia’s military deployment in Central Asia plays a stabilizing role in the short term, the membership and sustained institutional integration of Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan emboldens Moscow to further subordinate its neighbors’ interests and benefit from their security vulnerabilities. The provision of a peacekeeping mission mandate to the CSTO would, thus, be imprudent. Such a decision would leave the regions, where Russia-led coalition troops are fielded, facing even greater uncertainty and insecurity.