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Balancing the CSTO and SCO

From that ever-fascinating world of academic studies on Russia-Chinese relations comes a new report of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.  Author Geir Flikke spent the summer of 2009 with a research grant from Norway’s Ministry of Defense to investigate how relations between Beijing and Moscow are balanced between the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  Flikke sees both of these institutions powerfully affected by the 2008 war in Georgia, the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the efforts to build the Eastern Siberia Pipeline – a fact which was underscored by Uzbekistan throwing a sudden monkey wrench into the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force … both institutions are seen as declining in influence in terms of regional security.  The author notes, “Eurasian politics is a solidly founded realist game, and not a process that reflects particularly high levels of coordination or multilateral integration.

The report is very timely, as on Friday thousands of Russian troops participated in some of the first CSTO military exercises in the south of Kazakhstan.  Over the next two weeks, this joint force will train for anti-insurgency operations in the region, which raises some worries given the potential for bordering conflicts to spill over.  Also, other CSTO members are wary of Moscow’s ambitions – in particular, its growing military presence in Kyrgyzstan – as they weren’t too pleased about the departure from the state-centered model of handling separatism issues as Russia did with Georgia (the parallel for China in Urumqi is not difficult to see).  The Kremlin’s traditional preference for bilateralism and “special relationships” between 1-1 parties pose additional challenges to the desired multilateral establishment of both security and economic relations through these institutions.

My totally unnecessary quip:  Russia seems to strongly prefer talking about these new alternative institutional structures more than being constrained by them.  If Russia is determined to build a smaller-scale NATO counterweight with an armed CSTO, I imagine they will succeed (Belarus looks like they are even about to sign on), but if the coherence and consensus isn’t genuine among member nations, than there will still be a legitimacy problem.