The US is due to leave the Open Skies Treaty on 22 November 2020, six months after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the decision.
Signed in 1992 and in force since 2002, the treaty was designed to increase transparency and confidence in the Euro-Atlantic area by permitting the 34 states parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the entire territories of other states parties to collect data on military forces and activity. The imagery obtained during these overflights is available to all the states parties. Since 2002, more than 1,530 overflights have taken place.
According to Pompeo, the primary reason for the US withdrawal was the actions of one state party—Russia—which had violated the terms of the treaty; it was therefore not in US interests to continue as a party to it. The US considers that Russian actions have not complied with the treaty. Examples include the introduction of a 500-km limit to the range of flights over Kaliningrad; Russia reneging on a previously agreed flight segment over its military exercise Tsentr 2019; Russia’s refusal of flights within 10km of its border with the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the grounds that these occupied territories were independent states that are not party to the treaty; and designating an airfield in Crimea—part of Ukrainian territory—as an Open Skies refuelling point in an attempt to advance its narrative that Crimea is part of Russian territory.
Other parties to the treaty, including Russia, have expressed their regret at the US exit, but have also pledged to continue with its implementation. The NATO allies have, while recognising Russia’s selective implementation of the treaty, expressed support for continued US participation in the arrangement. Some signatories even considered that violations of the arrangement by one state party should not be taken as grounds for the withdrawal of another. For its part, Russia has denied any violations, but admits that there have been disputes on technical issues.
When reviewing US participation in arms-control agreements, the Trump administration came up with other arguments to support its withdrawal from Open Skies. American participation was seen as a threat to US national security and therefore no longer served US interests. The whole mechanism has been viewed as becoming obsolete when high-quality commercial satellite imagery is available to everybody. In addition, a cost–benefit analysis did not support future US participation. As the observation planes used by the US needed replacing, opponents to America’s participation have argued that this money could be used for other projects. One reason given by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in support of US withdrawal was to save the money earmarked for the replacement of two 1960s-era Boeing OC-135B aircraft that the US has been using for its Open Skies flights.
Since 2016 the US intelligence community has expressed its concern that, in the context of its new military doctrine, Russia was using observation flights over US territory to gather intelligence on US critical infrastructure, which could be targeted with precision weapons during a crisis. The Open Skies arrangement may give Russia a strategic edge. In 2019 the Trump administration analysed the value of Open Skies and concluded that the US was getting nothing out of the treaty. The benefits of the treaty have reduced, as the US can now rely on information gathered by national technical means (i.e. its own satellites), so it is not ready to take the risk of being compromised.
It is true that the US withdrawal will end Russian observation flights over US territory. But if Russia and European states parties continue to implement the treaty, Moscow can still observe US forces and infrastructure in Europe. So far, Russia’s overflights have followed a pattern, the majority being focused on Europe and a much smaller number—one-third—conducted over the US and Canada.
But there are still those in the US who consider Open Skies valuable. The US armed forces considered the treaty a useful instrument for military-to-military contacts, particularly during times of crisis, as former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis outlined in 2018 to Senator Deb Fischer, who mentioned the need to replace the US observation planes.
The Open Skies concept is a US invention, first proposed by president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 and rejected at the time by Moscow on the grounds that it could become a cover for widespread spying. In the Cold War atmosphere of mutual mistrust, there was little chance of a regime of this kind succeeding. However, it became possible in the environment of increased openness and trust of the late 1980s, when both sides were ready to proceed with the design of a transparency arrangement for the Euro-Atlantic area. But the world has changed and an environment of mistrust is back; as a result, one of the key members of the arrangement has lost interest and decided to withdraw.
Supporters of the US remaining in the treaty point out that Open Skies continues to be an important element of European security architecture, in whose creation the US played a decisive role. Leaving the treaty means stepping out of one of the last remaining elements of this system, thus harming the post-Cold War security apparatus in Europe, which has already been crumbling for some years, with Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE treaty in 2015, the stalled process of revising the Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures, and the US withdrawal from the INF treaty in 2019 following Russia’s violation of that agreement.
The US withdrawal creates additional difficulties and complicates the treaty’s implementation for those who are interested in its continued implementation. It will create some practical difficulties—budgetary, technical and political—for the functioning of the whole mechanism. The biggest challenge will be to replace US technical expertise. This will affect the work of the Open Skies Consultative Committee, a structure responsible for the implementation of the treaty and the work of informal working groups, two of which have been chaired by the US.
For time being, the Open Skies arrangement is not dead. In October, the remaining states parties were able to agree flight quotas for 2021. The future will show whether the remaining members can continue implementing the treaty when a critical player has left. The US withdrawal will certainly change the internal dynamics of the arrangement as another important player is becoming more assertive. Russia has already stated its concern that, after the withdrawal, the US will, with the help of its allies, still have access to imagery obtained during flights over Russian territory—which it claims could be a violation of the treaty, as this information is supposed to be made available only to the states parties. Russia has demanded explicit pledges that this kind of violation will not happen. It reminded partners that its policy with regard to the treaty would be based on its security interests, and threatened retaliatory measures in the event of attempts to limit Russia’s rights as a state party. At the regular treaty review conference in October, Moscow warned that, if other states parties did not behave responsibly, the next review conference, due in five years’ time, might not take place—a clear message that Russia does not exclude its own withdrawal. If Russia follows the US in leaving, the Open Skies mechanism will lose its purpose, meaning that the arrangement can be buried.
Note: This article was written before the result of the US presidential election was known.