NATO vs CSTO — Who Will Gain the Upper Hand?

The traditional rule-based order is over

3 August 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically impacted the post-Cold War security architecture compelling all international actors to restart their quest for peace, deterrence and resilience. 

Reality will never be the same again, and we are still in the eye of the political hurricane with unpredictable fallout ahead for NATO and the world. More importantly, Russia continues to relentlessly terrorise Ukraine with its missile strikes on civilian infrastructure, claiming the lives of Ukrainian families. 

Such tragedies also drive positive changes that come at a deadly price. To become a security game-changer and rewrite Putin’s rules, what must NATO do? What is behind Putin’s Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)? How do these organisations co-exist in times of war? Will NATO stop the war in Ukraine?

From Bucharest to Madrid — A Transformative Leap Forward Amid Invasion

NATO’s reset has been a thorny journey with its ups and downs. Looking in hindsight and assessing its role and defence capabilities amid times of invasion presents a tough intellectual exercise. One historical Summit comes to mind, especially amidst the current Russian atrocities in Ukraine — the 2008 Bucharest Summit. 

NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) were put on the table for Ukraine and Georgia. But fearing Putin’s harsh response, the two countries were promised to get the carrot of membership someday but with no viable roadmap. Biden’s administration regularly implied that ‘school is out’ for Ukraine’s membership, however, the ‘open door policy’ paradoxically remained. 

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Amid the current invasion and diverse challenges, President Volodymir Zelenskyy seemingly complained about Angela Merkel’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s political indecision, calling it a ‘miscalculation’ and inviting them to Bucha — ‘They thought that by refusing Ukraine, they could appease Russia, to convince it to respect Ukraine and live normally alongside us’. Merkel responded that she stood firm by her decisions. 

Appeasement policy and hope for engagement with Russia did not pan out in a way Merkel or any other EU political figure wished for — Putin attacked Georgia, annexed Crimea and backed a separatist takeover of parts of Eastern Ukraine, and now is trying to destroy the sovereignty of a democratic country and disrupt the Euro-Atlantic security apparatus.

The all-out war turned out to be a cold shower for all of NATO. The Russian invasion made NATO realise that the rules-based post-Cold War order is a closed chapter. The Alliance needs to adjust accordingly rather than dreaming of Russia stopping the bullying of its neighbours and the entire world. 

Since the invasion, NATO has been criticised for not closing the sky over Ukraine, unblocking Black Sea trade routes or sending heavy lethal weaponry as it still fears getting into a confrontation with Russia, which could trigger a third world war or nuclear exchange. But criticism aside, the Alliance has witnessed a monumental change in its policy and psyche. 

Madrid’s Strategic Concept

The new proactive Strategic Concept in the aftermath of the watershed Madrid Summit has set up its transformative path — from a ‘strategic partner’ Moscow turned into ‘a direct threat to NATO’s security, values and rules-based international order,’ China is viewed as a challenge, the tripwire strategy is over, Sweden and Finland have been promised membership, and the provision on spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence will be met by more members. Rather than weakening NATO, Putin’s invasion only made the Alliance stronger.

On the one hand, the new NATO strategic concept is set to strengthen the security environment in the EU and deepen the cooperation between its members to tackle multiple threats head-on, but on the other hand, it can now push for new regional and global alliances, arms race, opening the door to an era of a new Cold War and Iron Curtain, which the West is already facing. 

The security architecture is only at the beginning of its grand redesign. The concerted Western response to the war risks being sidelined this autumn under the backdrop of midterm US elections, high inflation, a renewed COVID outbreak and domestic pressure on leaders to solve these crises. 

It is a long game for NATO and the EU to find areas of convergence and act swiftly and unite to stop Putin’s unprovoked aggression and other challenges. Otherwise, the Strategy risks remaining an irrelevant piece of paper, fuelling Putin’s ambitions to make a move on NATO territory to test the revamped integrated deterrence.

Are There Reasons to Be Afraid of Putin’s CSTO?

Many tend to blame NATO for provoking Putin somehow by its expansion, alleged sponsorship of ‘coloured revolutions’ and promises to welcome Ukraine and Georgia into its defensive Alliance.

However, there are speculations on broken promises made in the 1990s by the US Secretary of State James Baker to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over the status of a unified Germany with the clear message — ‘not an inch eastward’. Ambassador Jack Matlock warned in 1997 that the enlargement ‘may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War and could produce the most serious security threat since the collapse of the Soviet Union.’ 

Likewise, Putin’s KGB mindset to see enemies everywhere and his post-Soviet nostalgia led to a toxic paranoid atmosphere among Russian political elites and his domestic audience. Aggressive realism and fear of losing power drive Putin’s decisions to stay on top of the geopolitical pyramid. Moreover, Putin’s worst geopolitical nightmare is a democratic sovereign Ukraine that strives to join the EU and NATO at his doorstep. Just a couple of months before the invasion, he repeated his mantra that ‘the US is parking missiles on the porch of our house.’ 

To counter NATO’s influence in his backyard and assert Russia as a superpower, he has launched the CSTO, a prototype of the Warsaw Pact, comprising Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. 

Unlike NATO, which serves the security interests of each member, CSTO was shaped by Putin to achieve his ambitions. Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka promised not to participate in this war. Still, Russian troops advanced into northern Ukrainian regions from his territory, and more than 600 missiles had already been launched from his country. 

Putin continues to compel him to open the second front from the north and West of Ukraine to stretch Ukrainian forces and gain a tactical advantage in the Donbas and southern Ukraine. However, the Belarusians are not ready to die for Putin’s interests. Other CSTO countries will not happily jump at his request for military assistance either. 

On 16 May, on the 30th anniversary of its inception, the last CSTO Summit was insignificant — there was no mention of Ukraine in the final communique. The focus was instead on domestic issues. 

These division lines were seen on 2 March, during a vote in the UN in regards to the condemnation of the invasion, only Belarus as a CSTO member, supported Russia. Putin’s recent visit to Iran and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov’s tour to African states are signals of looking for friends in their time of need.  

The military organisation triggered its Article on collective defence only once — to suppress uprisings in Kazakhstan in January 2022. Nevertheless, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, does not recognise the illegitimate LNR/DNR republics and is currently searching for new oil markets for his country, keeping an open phone line with President Zelenskyy. 

For any CSTO country to openly join the war in Ukraine would be catastrophic, except for Lukashenka, who is wholly dependent on the Kremlin. If Ukraine were to use its long-range HIMARS on military bases in occupied Crimea — which Putin views as ‘sacred’ — Putin would perceive it as a direct attack on its territory and warrant a collective military response from his CSTO. 

Moreover, Putin is preparing legal soil for a potential peacekeeping mission of CSTO countries in case he achieves all objectives without obtaining a UN mandate. Nevertheless, the West should keep an eye on CSTO members, which may contribute to Putin’s war gambit by simply circumventing sanctions to keep his war machine running. 

Will Ukraine Join the Alliance?

During the Madrid Summit, NATO committed to support embattled Ukraine for as long as it takes. Sanctions, humanitarian assistance, intelligence information and non-lethal military aid are the current significant ingredients for Ukrainian victory. But are they enough to deter Putin and stop his war machine? 

Despite the scepticism of Ukrainians towards NATO’s fear of confrontation with Russia and neglect of most of its pleas outlined in the Kuleba-Reznikov letter, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Membership was not on the table before the invasion, and it is out of the realm of possibility in the long term.

During initial negotiations with the Russian side, Ukraine was poised to renounce attempting to join NATO in return for realistic security guarantees from other countries. The notorious Budapest Memorandum is a bitter memory.

There are no talks about the immediate entry of Ukraine into the Alliance as the country is at war and will not be able to fulfil all the necessary criteria. But, for Ukrainians, it is not about Article five alone. 

The country has benefited from its cooperation with the Alliance. The Alliance has helped implement tectonic reforms in the defence area for example better medical care for soldiers, gender equality in the army, professional training, push for sensitive anti-corruption/judicial reforms, reconnaissance sharing, joint military exercises and cooperation in cyber security just to name a few. 

‘Enhanced Opportunities Partner’ (EOP) status gave Ukrainians more voice in NATO structures and increased its military standards and interoperability with the Alliance. Ukraine proved to be an advantage to the Alliance, especially in tackling hybrid threats and low-intensity conflict on its ground. This cooperation showcased all these benefits during the invasion, as Putin’s initial offensive was a complete disaster. Zelenskyy stated that there is no other reliable security guarantee but NATO, despite all of its bitter indecisions. 

In turn, at the Madrid Summit, he rebuked the Alliance again for a lack of a breakthrough regarding heavy weaponry or NATO’s posture in the Black Sea — ‘The open door policy shouldn’t resemble the old turnstiles on Kyiv’s subway, which stay open but close when you approach them until you pay.’ 

In 1992 US President Bill Clinton acutely underlined the role of Ukraine as a ‘linchpin for NATO’s rationale.’ Ukrainian heroism and military experience will be beneficial for NATO’s survival in the long term. Otherwise, Ukraine could turn into a grey zone that will be a constant issue for the Alliance.

International security future: whose upper hand will it be?

Putin has always been instrumentalising NATO’s eastward expansion as a flimsy excuse to defend Russian national interests and the post-Soviet ‘near abroad.’ It is one among many of his major casus belli cards. Only this time his imaginary threats brought the most catastrophic war since the second world war. 

NATO did not expand its borders by force. This choice was made by independent states and their people to protect themselves from dangerous neighbours. It was a free choice without coercion. 

Now, NATO has a window of opportunity to end the malpractice of changing borders by force and become a cornerstone of the new security architecture. The current invasion of Ukraine is a common security denominator across the Alliance, and there is a chance to patch all capability-expectations gaps and become a real security provider.

State Secretary Anthony Blinken was clear when he said — ‘NATO is a defensive Alliance. We seek no conflict. But if conflict comes to us — we are ready for it. And we will defend every inch of NATO territory.’ But such an attack could be possible in the future using hybrid warfare as it blurs the line of Article Five. 

The high possibility of direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is highly possible even now if Putin decides to test NATO’s resolve in the Baltic region or use any kind of nuclear or chemical weapon in desperation. The Alliance’s future solely depends on the final outcome of the war.

NATO should focus on the raison d’être of the Washington Treaty — defence capabilities whereas the EU’s efforts should be put into the humanitarian/economic/energy domains. Together they will have to find solutions to the post-conflict settlement and rebuild the war-torn state.

The emergence of new regional and global alliances and the new world order will not diminish NATO’s voice. If Ukraine’s NATO membership is not implemented, it will need a new regional Alliance with solid security guarantees. The road to such guarantees is still very long. 

The ‘brain dead’ NATO after US President Donald Trump’s limbo is slowly but surely coming to life, holding the key to becoming a security shaper to stop Russia now in Ukraine without triggering Article Five in the Baltic or Eastern Europe regions later. 

It is a battle not only between Ukraine and Russia but also between Western liberal values and the rise of the new authoritarian no-rule world. 

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Picture: “NAC 1” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by NATO

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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