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YEREVAN, Armenia – A small group of protesters lined the road from the airport Wednesday afternoon to celebrate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Armenia. “Welcome,” said a banner above the barriers, “we will be together forever.”
Across Yerevan, in the capital’s central square, the message was very different. “We want to get out of Russia’s shadow,” shouted 47-year-old office worker Lilit, her voice almost drowned out by an activist with a megaphone. “The world is being divided and our future must be with the West, not with the dictators.”
She was one of hundreds who turned out to protest Putin’s rare trip abroad for a crunch summit with leaders of the half-dozen former Soviet states that are members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In addition to Russia, the military pact in principle binds Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to a mutual defense agreement that replaced the USSR’s joint Red Army.
In recent months, however, the cracks have begun to show.
“We see problems with the work of the CSTO,” Putin told his partners at a secure conference center in Yerevan, “but it is still obvious that it helps protect our countries’ national interests, sovereignty and independence.”
Not everyone sees it the same way. “The CSTO is Russia’s way of maintaining its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union,” said Natasha Kuhrt, associate professor of international peace and security at King’s College London. “But in reality it’s a paper tiger – it’s just not fit for purpose. It has previously shown itself unwilling to step in when its members call for support, and Putin’s fellow leaders are deeply concerned about the poor performance of his armed forces in Ukraine, as they had previously relied on Moscow as a guarantor of their security.”
For the hosts of Wednesday’s summit, it is a problem they know all too well. In September, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally submitted a request to the CSTO to intervene after towns and villages across the country came under bombardment from across the border with neighboring Azerbaijan. But already forced to call up conscripts to help fight its increasingly disastrous war in Ukraine, the Kremlin appeared unable or unwilling to follow through, agreeing to send a contingent of observers to the border instead . Protesters took to the streets of Yerevan in the wake of the decision, calling for Armenia’s withdrawal from the bloc.
Likewise, the unity of the organization was tested by a bloody border conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in September, in which more than 140 soldiers were killed. In the wake of the firefights, Kyrgyzstan pulled out of military exercises – called Indestructible Brotherhood – planned for the following month.
At the same time, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko agreed to requests from the Kremlin that his country be used as a launch pad for missile and ground attacks on Ukraine, but has so far avoided committing his own forces to the so-called special operation. On Wednesday, however, he acknowledged that the future of the CSTO depends on the success of Russia’s war, while still pledging to do a little of his own to help it along.
Meanwhile, after Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev publicly rejected Putin earlier this year by refusing to recognize Russian sovereignty over Donbass, Moscow’s state media has turned the same anger against his country as it has against Kiev. “Kazakhstan is the next problem because the same Nazi processes can start there as they did in Ukraine,” warned commentator Dmitry Drobnitsky on Russia’s First Channel this week.
Sitting with his colleagues at the summit, Putin was keen to build consensus on uncontroversial issues such as Afghanistan, offering to help equip CSTO states with modern weapons. “My dear colleagues,” he added, “I will present information about Ukraine separately.”
“For Putin, the Cold War – Russia standing against an ‘imperial’ West – clearly influences his thinking, and he sees CSTO states as younger brothers in the same struggle, along with their shared history,” said Sergey Radchenko, a historian at Johns. Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But the relationship is completely different now. The Soviet Union could order its allies around – Putin can’t order anyone around, he has to court his partners and hope they either support him or stay out of things with some sense of benevolent neutrality.”
Distracted by its war in Ukraine and failing to keep even its closest allies in line, the Kremlin could hope for little concrete support at Wednesday’s summit. For many locals, even those born in the glory days of the Soviet Union, which Putin longs to recreate, the idea of him leading a coalition against Western aggression just doesn’t ring true.
“Putin is persona non grata,” said Vartes, 64, who joined the crowd in Yerevan. “Armenia is independent. We have elected our own government. We have nothing in common with this group of non-democratic states.”