On 13 January, the so-called peacekeeping contingent of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO, a military alliance of six post-Soviet countries led by Russia) started to be withdrawn from Kazakhstan. It is a grouping of 2,000 troops from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The core of this formation is Russian paratroopers led by General Andrei Serdyukov, a participant in military operations in Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia, and the annexation of Crimea. The withdrawal of CSTO troops from Kazakhstan is expected to end on 23 January. According to official Kazakh sources, “the anti-terrorist operation in the country is coming to an end” – this is what the authorities call the suppression of protests in the country, which began on 2 January and quickly escalated from peaceful rallies to street clashes.
If the withdrawal of troops from Kazakhstan does end on 23 January, it will be the shortest “peacekeeping operation” involving Russia. Usually, Moscow tries to keep its contingents abroad as long as possible. The tactics of deploying military bases in post-Soviet countries are somewhat reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s system of “troop groups” in the Warsaw Pact countries (German Democratic Republic, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary). After the Soviet system collapsed, each republic had units directly subordinate to Moscow and the latter tried to keep those units by all means. Only the Baltic states and Turkmenistan, which declared itself a neutral state in 1995, had a principled stance on the withdrawal of Russian troops. In 2012, Azerbaijan succeeded in curtailing the Gabala Radar Station, the only Russian base in the country. Uzbekistan accepts Russian troops only during joint exercises within the CSTO.
All other countries of the former USSR still have Russian bases in their territories. Though in different roles and different statuses, the presence of Russian troops is the clearest way to define what the Kremlin calls an area of interest. Speaking about Ukraine, the Black Sea Fleet was based here until 2014 under bilateral agreements, and a sharp militarisation of the territory began after the annexation of Crimea. According to the Crimea Platform data, the number of Russian troops increased from 12,500 to 40,000. The number of troops in Donbas varies. In November last year, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhny said that 2,100 Russian military personnel were constantly stationed in the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At the same time, according to Ukrainian intelligence, a 50,000-strong operational reserve was formed as part of the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation, which should shore up the 1st and the 2nd Army Corps “LPR” and “DPR,” currently numbering about 35,000 people, in case of the active phase of hostilities.
Georgia has a similar situation: Russian troops were withdrawn from Tbilisi-controlled territory in 2007, but there are two Russian bases of 4,000 personnel (motorised infantry units with artillery by the nature of their weapons) each in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognised by Moscow as the independent states.
In the territory of Moldova, the Russians deployed two battalions of “peacekeepers” (numbering up to 1,000 people), stationed in self-proclaimed Transnistria. Since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, Russia has suffered a problem with the rotation of personnel in this contingent, solved by recruiting locals with Russian passports.
In November 2020, Russia managed to strengthen its presence in the Caucasus as a new phase of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the actual victory of which Azerbaijan won, allowed Moscow to deploy a contingent of 1,900 people, based on fighters of the 15th Motorised Rifle Brigade which had participated in the war in Donbas. In addition, Russia has the 102d military base in Armenia – a 5,000-strong group that has its combat aircraft and air defence.
The Russian Federation has a fairly large (about 7,000 personnel) base in Tajikistan. It has been present in the republic since the civil war (1994-1997) and constitutes a large motorised unit. In Kyrgyzstan, Russia is represented by the Kant air base, involving strike aircraft and Orlan-class drones.
Apart from essentially combat units, Russia has an extensive network of high-tech military facilities in loyal post-Soviet countries. These are radio location stations and communications centres in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In Kazakhstan, Russia also leases several training areas for air and missile defence and the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
There are some reasons to believe that Russia’s military presence in the CSTO member states will grow soon. Against the background of the events in Kazakhstan, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka called for the deployment of troops in Tajikistan. This statement can be regarded as an announcement of Moscow’s true intentions. And new Russian bases may soon appear in Belarus itself. Moscow has long been pushing Minsk towards a unified air defence system and the deployment of Russian military aircraft. Whereas Lukashenka tried to evade this proposal until 2020, recently he became an adherent of deepening military cooperation with Russia. The deployment of a Russian air base and air defence units in Belarus will allow the Kremlin to intensify blackmail on NATO and pose an additional threat to Ukraine.