A Cold War initiative that has since become a confidence-boosting measure, the Open Skies Treaty has calmed international tensions, aided transparency, and given smaller U.S. allies a vital insight into Russia activities. But now the agreement is facing turbulence. While there is little dispute that Moscow has thwarted the spirit of the treaty and is inhibiting its full and proper implementation, most signatories want to resolve the problems within the terms of the accord. A misjudged or unilateral response from the White House would cause an acrimonious transatlantic rift and might leave Ukraine dangerously unsighted on the next Russian military build-up.
Q1: What is the Open Skies Treaty?
A1: The Open Skies Treaty is an international agreement that allows 34 signatory nations to conduct short-notice aerial reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory. It sets out rules on how much notice must be given in advance for an overflight, how the photographs must be taken and shared, and other practical details that make the arrangement workable. The flights enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving signatory nations the ability to gather unclassified information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern. Originally proposed by President Eisenhower in 1955—and rejected by the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev as an ‘espionage plot’—it was eventually signed in 1992 and took effect in 2002. The United States and most members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are participants, along with Russia, Bosnia, Belarus, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine.
To date, the treaty has been particularly useful for smaller and less-equipped nations in assessing the capabilities of other countries, including potential adversaries: Ukraine, for example, has used Open Skies to assess Russia’s troop buildup near its eastern border, and in the recent Kerch Strait incident. The treaty also provides insights into readiness by using heat-sensitive equipment to detect how much fuel is in aircraft tanks stationed on the ground. It is one of the last remaining frameworks that offers transparency and facilitates confidence-building between Russia and the West.
Q2: Why is the treaty in the news?
A2: For several years, Russia has played fast and loose with the treaty. Citing dubious safety grounds, it is keeping Open Skies flights out of Kaliningrad, the missile-packed outpost of Russian soil between Poland and Lithuania. It is also denying access near Georgia’s territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which only Russia regards as independent countries). While the United States and other Open Skies members have expressed concern over Russia’s implementation of the treaty, they have not determined that Russia’s actions are a violation of the treaty. Legalities notwithstanding, hawkish former national security advisor John Bolton is reported to have drawn up a memo calling on the United States to withdraw from the treaty in retaliation, which President Trump is alleged to have signed. This has angered the House Foreign Affairs Committee and several U.S. allies who believe that the move would play into Russia’s hands—gifting them a PR win, by allowing them to claim it is the United States, not Russia, which is undermining the treaty. Also, several U.S. allies and partners regard the treaty as their only means to gather reliable information on Russia’s military formations and troop deployments, which is particularly important since Russia withdrew from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007.
Q3: What will happen next?
A3: Not clear. If the U.S. administration goes ahead with withdrawing from the treaty, then it is unlikely to yield an improvement in Russian behavior—more likely, Moscow will use it as an excuse to curtail further access for countries like Ukraine. Russia may also cite technical violations to cut out several NATO countries. Unlike the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. allies have a direct stake in Open Skies and may well distance themselves from the administration’s position or actively condemn it. Reducing the intelligence available to NATO allies through overflights would undercut the operational effectiveness of the alliance, while unilateral U.S. withdrawal could divide it politically. Both would benefit Russia.
Q4: Can the treaty be saved, and Russia brought back into line?
A4: The United States and Russia, both with a large armada of high-tech satellites, have less need for the treaty than most of the other signatories, who still draw great utility from Open Skies. The United States, as a large country, gets a significantly higher quota of overflights, so withdrawing from it significantly reduces the overall number of flights that can be shared. Hence, there is strong support for keeping the treaty in place and dealing with Russian malfeasance either through the treaty provisions or by calling them out.
Iain King CBE is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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