Russia NATO Equivalent Ineffective, Putin Looks Weak, Says Experts


  • Russia has its own defense alliance, the CSTO, intended to mimic NATO and promote Russian power.
  • But experts told Insider it’s never really worked, and is actually making Putin look weak.
  • The CSTO has only once sent troops when called upon, and divisions have grown since the invasion of Ukraine.

In 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin established a new organization widely viewed as his attempt to set up a NATO rival, made up of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

His goal, experts told Insider, was to create a union that projected Russian power, echoed NATO, and maintained Russia’s control over its nominal allies.

But the Collective Security Treaty Organization has never been strong, and its cracks have only deepened since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

“I don’t think it ever struck anybody as a very effective organization,” Thomas Graham, cofounder of Yale University’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies program, told Insider.

Putin wanted his own version of NATO

Putin has long viewed NATO as a threat to Russia, even citing it as an excuse for his invasion of Ukraine.

Experts say the CSTO is his attempt to copy it. 

The alliance is currently made up of Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, none of which, apart from Russia, could be considered a military powerhouse.

The alliance has also lost members, something that has never happened in the seven-decade history of NATO. Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan have all left the CSTO, and another member, Armenia, is threatening to leave.


Alexander Cooley, an expert on former Soviet states at Columbia University, said that “the CSTO tried to sort of mimic some parts of NATO,” like its rapid reaction forces.

But he said the alliance has “weakened” amid recent conflicts and is vulnerable to changing perceptions.

“The status of it rises and falls depending upon the discontents of its members,” he said.

NATO leaders stand in front of podiums with their countries' flags behind them

World leaders attend a press conference after a working dinner for NATO leaders at the Catshuis, in The Hague, Netherlands, in June 2023.

REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

The CSTO is supposed to operate like NATO, where if one member is attacked, it’s as if all were — but the workings of the alliance so far suggest this principle is not applied.

The CSTO “wants to say it’s NATO-like, but the kind of territorial defense aspect of NATO has not been put in practice when leaders have appealed to it,” Cooley said.

The alliance has “kind of made the rules up as it was going along as to its scope, its exact mission,” he said.

Last year, Armenia called on the CSTO for help during border clashes with neighboring Azerbaijan, and its decision not to send troops infuriated Armenia’s prime minister.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called its response “depressing” and “hugely damaging to the CSTO’s image both in our country and abroad.”

He also physically distanced himself from Putin in a group photo in November, and refused to sign a draft declaration during a CSTO summit.

Armenia's prime minister and Russia's president among other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) leaders in Yerevan, Armenia, on November 23, 2022.

Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) leaders in Yerevan, Armenia, on November 23, 2022.

KAREN MINASYAN / AFP via Getty Images; Insider

In May, he said Armenia could leave the alliance if its benefits to his country weren’t proven.

Putin’s failed efforts to project power 

According to Cooley, the CSTO isn’t Putin trying to re-form the Soviet Union but is about projecting Russian power.

Russia leading organizations like the CSTO is part of its “self-identification as a great power,” he said, adding that in Putin’s mind “great powers lead alliances and organizations.”

But it’s also about control.

The CSTO is for Moscow “a tool of statecraft, a tool of its sort of influence and its attempt to preserve, influence, and control the post-Soviet space,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Graham said the CSTO also allows Russia to justify keeping a military presence in these countries, as it can say it’s doing so for their own security needs.

Putin wants to repel Western militaries from the region, and the CSTO was created as a response to the presence of Western militaries in central Asia, Cooley said.

But the problem with forming an alliance to project power, both experts said, is that when it goes badly, it can make you look weaker.

Making Putin look weak

Member complaints and Russia’s struggles in Ukraine have frustrated the alliance’s illusion of power, the experts said.

Cooley said the alliance has the potential to be a “power enhancer” when it acts, but is instead a liability when there’s conflict — like there is now.

He added that though the CSTO is “nominally a NATO-style alliance,” its dealings with its own members have actually weakened the position of leadership Russia wants to portray for itself.

Destroyed Russian tank in Kharkiv Ukraine

A Ukrainian woman on a destroyed Russian tank near the village of Oskol, in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region in October 2022.


Russia wants to look strong, Cooley said, “But in practical terms, you’ve seen Russia unable to sort out the actual security concerns of some of its members.”

Graham gave the most damning assessment of the alliance: “How many people really know about the CSTO? Or really cares about it?”

CSTO has failed to achieve its own goals

CSTO members have asked the alliance for help multiple times, but it has only actually involved itself once.

Cooley pointed to the CSTO not intervening when Armenia recently asked for help, saying this highlighted how Russia doesn’t want to “pick sides in local disputes,” even when CSTO members actively ask it to.

yrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enter the hall during the Summit of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) at the Grand Kremlin Palace, May, 16, 2022, in Moscow, Russia.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Contributor/Getty Images

Cooley said this shows how the alliance has failed to operate like NATO.

“It aspires to be an alliance and uses alliance-like language and NATO sorts of terms, but when push comes to shove it can’t commit to actually defend most members from what are their most pressing security threats,” he said.

It also shows how the CSTO is not “very active in guaranteeing the security” of its members, Graham said.

The one time the CSTO did intervene was in January 2022, when it sent a small force into Kazakhstan at the government’s request, after rioters demanded new leadership for the country.

The riots ended shortly after, and the experts said CSTO forces did little, and were there simply to project support for the government.

Cooley said Russia’s actions were instructive: rather than deploying troops to help countries defend themselves, it only helped during “a regime-support kind of operation.”

Soldiers stand in a row with snow on the ground and an aircraft behind them

Russian peacekeepers leave a military plane during the withdrawal of troops from Kazakhstan in January 2022.

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Cooley said the CSTO hasn’t even been very effective in terms of keeping Western militaries out of the region.

He noted that “the US and other NATO countries openly use central Asian countries as hubs for logistical support.”

The US also continued to have military bases in some CSTO countries long after the alliance was founded, and Russian efforts to limit Western military presence “didn’t really do much of consequence,” he said.

Most CSTO members are militarily small

The CSTO was born out of Russia’s attempts to keep control of former Soviet countries after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

While most former Soviet states signed a 1992 collective security treaty — except for Ukraine, which wanted its own military – Putin, as Russia’s president in 2002, wanted “something more along the lines of NATO, and that became the CSTO,” Graham said.

But part of its struggles come from just how small many of its members actually are, militarily.

A solider fires a portable air-defense system beside a stone wall under a blue sky

A Kyrgyzstan soldier during joint military exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in September 2021.

AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

NATO, led by the US, is made up of many of the world’s most powerful militaries.

When it comes to the CSTO, Graham said the difference between Russia and the other members “are just vast,” and the alliance can’t do much “beyond what the Russians themselves are prepared to do.”

Cooley also questioned how much additional power the alliance really gives Russia.

He said Russia’s control is there because these states are small, weak, and simply “don’t have a lot of other options” other than relying on Russia.

But it looks more splintered since the invasion

Even so, the alliance has been visibly weakened since Russia launched its war in Ukraine. 

CSTO country leaders have committed a series of apparent snubs against Putin since Russia failed to quickly overrun Ukraine.

This includes Tajikistan’s president demanding more respect in front of Putin in October, Kazakhstan seeking closer ties with the West and denying Russia’s request to send troops at the start of the invasion, and Armenia’s bitter complaints.

CSTO leaders sit around a large round table above a tiled floor and under a carved, gilded ceiling

A meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in September 2021.

Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

When it comes to Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan “has sort of reached his breaking point,” Cooley said.

“He’s just calling things out as they are. It’s like: ‘Well, if you’re not gonna defend us and keep making excuses, What’s the point of this thing?”

Experts previously told Insider the invasion of Ukraine left Russia’s reputation as a security provider in the region in tatters, and highlighted existing divisions in the alliance.

“I think [the CSTO’s] weaknesses have been exposed by the invasion, but I don’t think it was particularly effective to begin with, in terms of operational issues,” Cooley said.

He also said that members criticizing the alliance will always be “significant,” but that some of the recent comments made by CSTO leaders were being blown out of proportion. This includes Kazakhstan’s foreign minister saying in April 2022 that his country would not recognize Russian-backed separatist republics in Ukraine, he said.

Cooley said those comments were consistent with Kazakhstan’s existing position, where it doesn’t recognize separatist entities outside of the UN system.

He also said that CSTO members states’ desires for closer ties with the US weren’t new. “They’ve always wanted both good ties with the EU and with the US,” he said.

But this just shows how badly Putin has failed in his goals for the CSTO from the start. “Putin, geopolitically, wants them on his side,” Cooley said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Yerevan, Armenia, November 23, 2022.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the CSTO summit in Yerevan, Armenia, November 23, 2022.

Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure via REUTERS

Russia’s regional power is weakening

CSTO countries have close ties to Russia, including economic ones.

But changes in the region threaten Russia’s influence, the experts said. 

Central Asia’s “dynamics are changing,” according to Graham, with China strengthening its position in a way that could potentially “undermines Russia’s broader influence in the region.”

He also said Turkey was increasing its influence there, partly because Russia is distracted by Ukraine. And that CSTO countries “have incentives to look elsewhere — something the United States could exploit if it were so inclined at this point.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Armenia in November 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Armenia in November 2022.

Contributor/Getty Images

“You’re seeing the slow erosion of Russian influence,” Graham suggested, adding: “It’ll play itself out over many, many years.”

Graham also said the invasion of Ukraine meant Putin is less and less able to deal with CSTO members’ complaints.

“Russia is facing challenges across the entire former Soviet space, and its engagement in Ukraine is eroding the capabilities and resources that needs to deal with those effectively,” he said.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, in short, could be another nail in the coffin for the country’s attempts to set up its own regional rival to NATO.


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