Russia has moved ahead with its plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus: the first time Russia will store part of its nuclear arsenal in another country since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
On the face of it, it signals strength. The truth is the opposite. The day of the original announcement back in March was Belarus Freedom Day – an unofficial holiday celebrated by the oppressed Belarusian opposition. The decision was deliberately timed to try and sure-up an unstable country in case it echoes Ukraine in tipping Westwards in the years ahead.
Elsewhere in Europe, the picture is equally gloomy. In Georgia and Moldova, mass protests have been seen against Kremlin activities, and even in Serbia – a traditional ally of the Kremlin – the Foreign Minister accepted several weeks ago it may end up sanctioning Russia.
Meanwhile, it is Moscow’s imitation version of NATO – the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), established in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union – where it is most seriously struggling to maintain legitimacy among its members. The CSTO was formed with the objective of enhancing regional stability and comprises six member states: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Article 4 of the CSTO treaty – comparable to NATO’s Article 5 – includes a supposedly ironclad commitment to defend other member states from aggression, yet Russia has consistently failed to provide the expected support. For over 30 years, the CSTO had refrained from deploying troops to conflict zones to protect its member states, despite repeated appeals from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
Similarly, CSTO member states have displayed wavering support for Russia in light of Putin’s calamitous war in Ukraine. Last year, Kyrgyzstan cancelled its joint military exercises with Russia, and among all CSTO countries, only Belarus has explicitly endorsed Russia’s war. Significantly, Armenia's Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, announced that his country, a longstanding Russian ally, is currently contemplating withdrawal from the CSTO.
Pashinyan’s announcement follows Russia's failure to fulfil its CSTO responsibilities towards Armenia. Last year, Yerevan sought CSTO assistance during its violent dispute with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Pashinyan highlighted that due to Russia's absence, Armenia and Azerbaijan had to turn to Western institutions like the EU to facilitate a peace agreement, as the regional security system under the CSTO was ineffective.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitriy Peskov responded to Pashinyan’s statements by emphasising, “certainly, we will continue our dialogue with our Armenian friends.” However, it remains uncertain whether Pashinyan will be receptive. Following Russia’s failure to support Armenia during its conflict with Azerbaijan, hundreds of protesters gathered in the capital, urging the government to withdraw from the CSTO.
Pashinyan stated that, in addition to the CSTO's failure to provide the promised military support, Armenia’s association with the CSTO has hindered its ability to defend itself, since it has prevented Armenia from procuring weapons from Western sources.
Russia’s failure to assist Armenia comes as no surprise. Putin perceives the CSTO as a unilateral means to assert control over the post-Soviet region and promote the interests of the Kremlin, rather than an institution based on reciprocity. Consequently, countries that were once under Putin's sphere of influence have begun seeking cooperation elsewhere.
As a result, negotiations by Western actors have afforded Armenia and Azerbaijan significant advancements towards a potential resolution. Armenia has expressed its willingness to recognise the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave as part of Azerbaijan, provided that Baku protects the rights of ethnic Armenians. On May 25, during the meeting with Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev emphasised that “there is a possibility of coming to a peace agreement.”
NATO should seize the current opportunity to demonstrate the CSTO, particularly under Russia's leadership, is merely a symbolic entity lacking substance.
The growing anti-CSTO sentiments provide an opportunity for NATO to expose Russia’s disloyalty. NATO member states should utilise information operations to reach out to Russia’s proxies in countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the Balkans and convey the truth – that Russia refused to assist its treaty-bound ally, Armenia, when they needed it the most, and it is only a matter of time before Moscow does the same to them.
Russia continues to portray NATO as a malevolent actor in the Global South and as responsible for the conflict in Ukraine. Now, NATO member states should engage with Latin American countries and put a spotlight on Armenia’s contemplation to leave the CSTO. With Putin preparing for the Africa-Russia summit in July, it is also crucial for African nations to learn the truth about Putin’s treatment of his Armenian ally and its new inclination to align with the West.
Putin’s plan to undermine NATO has been halted. Now it is time for NATO member states to turn the tables and expose the CSTO as nothing more than an empty shell.