Putin's military alliance is beset by new tensions following Russia's faltering invasion of Ukraine.
Some member states have snubbed Putin, declined to offer support, or turned to the West.
The CSTO, Russia's NATO equivalent, was never a powerhouse, but its relations have become strained.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has his own version of the NATO military alliance, made up of post-Soviet states.
But the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which was never as powerful or cohesive as Russia would have liked, has been increasingly creaking since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, experts told Insider.
Some of its members have made unprecedented public snubs against Putin, and experts say they're conscious of Russia's poor military performance over the past year, with questions over how well Russia could protect them.
Some may even fear becoming Russian targets.
The University of Birmingham's Jaroslava Barbieri, an expert on Russia and post-Soviet states, told Insider that the CSTO was "almost like an attempt to imitate NATO but in the post-Soviet space."
But, she said, it's now "really showing cracks."
Snubs from allies
As Putin has become more isolated since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, CSTO members have made up some of his few remaining allies, with close cultural, historical, and military ties, as well as economies that heavily rely on Russia.
In addition to Russia, the CSTO consists of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, all once part of the Soviet Union.
But some have committed a series of apparent snubs against Putin since the invasion began.
These include Tajikistan's president demanding more respect, despite his country's small size, in front of Putin in October; Kazakhstan looking for closer ties with the West and denying Russia's request to send troops at the start of the invasion; and Armenia's prime minister criticizing the effectiveness of the CSTO to Putin's face and physically distancing himself in November from Putin in a group photo with alliance-member leaders.
Other snubs included Kazakhstan sending aid to Ukraine, Armenia and Kazakhstan voting in favor of a UN resolution that noted in April the "aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine," and Armenia turning to France for help with a regional conflict after getting frustrated with the CSTO's response.
Peter Frankopan, an expert on Russian and Balkans history at Oxford University, told Insider that the countries seemed unhappy with Russia: "It is certainly true that Putin looks like his status has been downgraded."
And Frankopan said the likely snubs appeared calculated.
"It is bold, but it is not done without thought or care. It would not seem to me unreasonable to suppose that there have been detailed backroom discussions," he added.
Putin wants his own NATO
Putin has positioned NATO as his biggest enemy, justifying the invasion of Ukraine, in part, by saying he was trying to stop NATO's expansion toward Russia's borders.
Ironically, the invasion has strengthened NATO, with nearby Finland joining, effectively doubling the length of the Russia-NATO border.
One of NATO's key tenants is collective defense: If one member is attacked, it's as if all were.
The CSTO has a similar agreement. But the workings of the CSTO cast doubt on whether it could ever reasonably compete with NATO.
In September, Armenia called on the CSTO for help during border clashes with Azerbaijan. The alliance limited its response to sending its secretary-general and offering to form a working group.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called the response "depressing" and said it was "hugely damaging to the CSTO's image both in our country and abroad."
That response was part of a pattern.
Anais Marin, an expert on Russia and Belarus and an associate fellow at Chatham House, told Insider that Armenia not getting the military assistance it asked for "further discredited the organization."
She noted Armenia in January subsequently canceled planned in-country CSTO drills.
Marin added that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan "tested, and evidenced, the limits of the CSTO when the alliance declined to intervene" in September border clashes between the countries, in which more than 100 people died.
"Member states appeared as unwilling to offer military support," she said, adding that Russian peacekeeping troops, not CSTO ones, were deployed to secure a cease-fire.
The University of Birmingham's Barbieri said that the lack of CSTO response had likely led Armenia to a rethink.
"I would say that there are very serious conversations going on inside Armenia whether they should remain a member of the CSTO at all," she said.
And Marin said there was tension among the CSTO even before the invasion of Ukraine.
She described Armenia as "a very close ally of Russia," one that's "extremely dependent on Russia, both economically and in terms of military security."
But, she said, it has had a "noticeable growth in distrust towards the Kremlin" in recent years and has "developed quite some resentment against Russia for what it perceives amounted to failing to help a friend in need" during fighting with Azerbaijan in 2020.
The value of the organization has been criticized by Kyrgyzstan for even longer, she added.
And Frankopan said that countries had likely stopped trusting Russia's military abilities.
"I think most states learned not to think about Russia as a protector state," he said.
Russia's military struggles in Ukraine have fueled doubts.
Worse relations since the Ukraine invasion
Russia expected to conquer Ukraine in days. Instead, more than a year later, its army is bogged down in the east, hemorrhaging soldiers and equipment as its reputation plummets.
Barbieri said Russia's regional reputation as a security provider "is in tatters."
She added that the invasion of Ukraine was the last straw "in the sense that Russia is seen no longer as providing security but as a destabilizer, spoiler, of security in the region."
Marin said that the CSTO had become "a marginal actor in the eyes of most of its member states already before the war, but it further lost its relevance throughout 2022."
She said the invasion resulted in "fear and growing distrust towards the Kremlin" — except in Belarus, which is widely seen as a Russian puppet state and has helped in the invasion.
Marin added that it's "noteworthy that Russia did not ask for CSTO support at any stage of its 'special military operation.'"
She said CSTO members didn't seem interested in taking big risks to protect the alliance's future.
"Should Russia be militarily defeated in Ukraine, the CSTO is unlikely to survive," she said.
Russia, a 'toxic partner'
According to Frankopan, regional backlash to Russia's invasion of Ukraine could be happening for multiple reasons, including ideological objections to Russia's tactics.
But he and Marin said tensions also likely stemmed from self-interested fears and frustrations — they, too, could become targets — as well as how the invasion had made everyday life harder.
Frankopan noted that pro-Kremlin figures had suggested on state TV the annexation of parts of Kazakhstan, and the war has driven up energy and food prices.
Marin said the Ukraine invasion had made Russia a "rather toxic partner" to most of its post-Soviet neighbors.
And CSTO members are dealing with an influx of Russian immigrants fleeing military call-up, she said.
Even so, while other post-Soviet countries have aligned themselves closely with the West and NATO, CSTO members remain tangled with, and somewhat dependent on, Russia, with no formal split likely.
Barbieri said "there will still be pragmatic alliances" between the nations.
Marin went further. She said the alliance was losing relevance and legitimacy in the eyes of most of its members but that Russia would retain its influence.
"It would be wrong to assume that Russia is losing ground in its post-Soviet neighborhood. Moscow retains multiple means to exert considerable leverage in most of these countries' domestic affairs," she said.
Frankopan also said that dissatisfaction with Russia could easily change.
"This pendulum can swing in both directions, and in the right or wrong conditions, policy can be adapted or even reversed," he said.
Meanwhile, despite international condemnation and repeated battlefield humiliations, Russia looks set to continue its war in Ukraine, and there are no signs that Putin will be removed from power.
But, Barbieri said, if the war and Putin continue as they have, Russia's power over CSTO allies will continue to weaken.
"Its ability to be a leader in the region will become weaker and weaker, and it will be surrounded more and more by other states dictating the terms to Russia. And this is really not something that Putin's regime can accept," she said.
The invasion's outcome is also unlikely what Putin was looking for when he launched it.
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