Open Skies Treaty: From Dusk to Dawn in Vienna

The OST remained the last island in the archipelago of conventional arms control treaties. The arms control system is collapsing in plain sight. But the talks in Vienna give grounds for some optimism, writes Vadim Kozyulin, PIR Center’s Asian Security, Emerging Technologies and Global Security Project Director.

The withdrawal of the United States from the Open Skies Treaty may be the last chord of the requiem for agreements to limit the process of militarisation of great powers, which date back to the 20th century. However, optimists from around the world are in no hurry to bury the conventional arms control system, and believe that European confidence-building and transparency measures stand a good chance of surviving, and even witnessing a new dawn.

Donald Trump has announced that the US intends to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty (OST). This means that on November 22, the United States will cease to be a party to this multilateral agreement, which allows the defence forces of 34 states to conduct inspection flights of each other’s territory in order to build confidence and transparency.

On July 7, the Valdai Discussion Club held a discussion on the results of the conference of signatories to the Treaty on Open Skies, titled “Open Skies Treaty and the United States’ Pullout.”

The United States has been voicing its intention to leave the Open Skies Treaty for some time. Back in October 2019, President Trump signed an internal memorandum to end participation in the treaty, so the final decision to withdraw was not a surprise to anyone. Indirectly, the United States had already firmly determined that it would withdraw from the OST, as was indicated, at least, by the fact that it did not begin to modernise the aircraft which it used for conducting monitoring flights (whereas Russia did so).

The OST remained the last island in the archipelago of conventional arms control treaties. The arms control system is collapsing in plain sight. Most recently, the INF Treaty, an international document responsible for limiting short and medium-range missiles, expired. A little earlier, the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) expired and wasn’t renewed. The US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty or ABMT) in 2002 and the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran are additional milestones in the dismantling of the arms control system. Under Trump, Washington pulled out of the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, from UNESCO, and from the International Arms Trade Treaty. Today, the whole world is watching the fate of the New START Treaty with trepidation.

However, until November 22, 2020, Washington will remain a party to the OST and may reconsider its decision. The presidential elections will be held in the United States on November 3, 2020, and a lot in the US and throughout the world depends on the outcome, including the fate of the OST.

But for now, one should proceed from the fact that the United States has announced its withdrawal and notified the depositaries of the Treaty – Hungary and Canada.

Formal US claims directed at Russia regarding the implementation of the Treaty are well known: Washington considers Russia’s ban on flights over the Kaliningrad region to be a violation, as well as bans affecting ten-kilometre zones along the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The US takes the same approach to flight bans imposed during the Centre-2019 strategic exercises. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Russia is using information received under the OST to aim its weapons at the infrastructure of the US and Europe’s NATO members. Russia has repeatedly issued exhaustive answers in response to all the accusation.

In turn, Russia has claims of its own regarding the implementation of the OST by the United States and a number of other nations. The United States actually limits Russian observation flights over its territory: in the Hawaiian and Aleutian Islands and a significant part of Alaska. Such claims within the framework of the Treaty arose from the first days, and, as a rule, the parties found ways to resolve them.

The current claims do not look like a real reason to withdraw from the OST. For a decade and a half, the Treaty has generally worked without fail. Russia and the United States have conducted over 165 flights. The Treaty has a dispute resolution mechanism: complaints are reviewed by an Open Skies Advisory Commission, which operates by consensus. It is known that the commission until recently worked on finding solutions, and according to some information it was even close to success. The value of the OST is not so much in the information that participants collect and share in the public domain, but in transparency and confidence-building measures. The modern world lacks trust and transparency, so the Open Skies Treaty has become not just a working tool, but a kind of symbol of openness. This was also indicated by its name – “Open Skies Treaty.” The liquidation of the OST, conversely, will serve as a bad omen; journalists will write: the sky is falling!

At the conference of the participating countries on August 6, all states spoke in favour of preserving the OST as an important element of transparency and a measure to strengthen European security. The parties supported the proposal to eliminate the existing claims within the framework of the so-called “small group of experts”, to which the head of the Russian delegation, Sergei Ryabkov, invited the United States to participate – before the moment when it finally leaves the Treaty on November 22.

Withdrawal from the Treaty by a key participant in many respects devalues ​​this agreement. For the Russian side, the main condition that ensured the ratification of the Open Skies Treaty was the ability to view the territory of the United States from above. In essence, the discussions within the framework of the OST were a conversation between two main participants – the United States and the Russian Federation, and many parties to the Treaty even treated the OST as a bilateral document. Without the United States, a decent hole will form in the “open sky”, and in the most interesting place.

Washington’s demarche forces the remaining members of the Treaty to make decisions on rather shaky ground. The situation does not yet necessitate the re-launching of negotiations from the very beginning, but without significant amendments, it will not be possible to preserve the existing agreements.

On May 23, 2020, the Foreign Ministries of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Sweden and Finland issued a joint statement on this issue, stating that they regret the decision of US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. Later the UK, Norway and Poland added their voices to the statement.

After the final withdrawal of the United States from the Treaty, a new situation will arise, when the European parties to the Treaty and Canada will have to leave the shadow of Washington and come out with their positions. For the European countries, this will be the moment when it will be necessary to voice their own interests and speak out in favour of maintaining or terminating the treaty. At the moment, all European countries and Canada are in favour of the treaty. But the United States will continue to influence the OST members after it is no longer among them. So far, none of the European nations have spoken out in favour of withdrawing from the Treaty, and there is hope that this unanimous position of the countries of Europe and Canada will open the door to a new European security arrangement. If we are optimistic, then we can hope that a fortuitous process can emerge from the negotiations without the participation of the United States, which will continue, for example, with the modernisation of the Vienna Treaty. Proposals to modernise the Vienna Document have long been on the negotiating table. In particular, they provide for an increase in quotas for assessment and inspection visits, as well as a decrease in the thresholds for notifiable observed activities. Perhaps the twilight of the OST will be Vienna’s dawn?

Meanwhile, with the withdrawal of the United States from the OST, technical questions arise: about the redistribution of quotas for inspection flights and about changing the scale of funding for the OST Consulting Commission. But the most sensitive problem that the US withdrawal will leave as a legacy is the guarantees by the United States’ allies not to transfer the information to Washington. In addition, it will be necessary to fix the conditions for inspection flights over American facilities on European territory. A ban on such flights would contradict the provisions of the Treaty, and would obviously highlight the question of the sovereignty of these territories.

A lot could change in world politics this November if the US elects a new leader. Among other things, the United States may find that the current withdrawal from the OST will necessitate the re-ratification of the Treaty by the United States. Then the plan of the Russian Deputy Foreign Sergei Ryabkov “to start restoring trust through small steps” will become relevant.

However, such a return will not be easy, as Washington will have to sign an agreement to all decisions made by the advisory commission during the absence of the United States.

So far, the most difficult issue for the “survival” of the OST is the clause on the obligations of the states remaining in the Treaty not to transfer the data collected during inspections to Washington. It will not be easy for the European participants to come up with wording that will satisfy both the United States and Russia. It will be difficult for the Russian side to believe that the remaining participants will not share the information they have gathered about Russia and Belarus with the United States. Meeting these obligations will be particularly challenging for members of the Five Eyes Intelligence Club. That is, to some extent, the control process will look like a one-sided game.

However, it is in trust that the value of the Treaty lies, and trust today seems more valuable than information. The world has entered an era of fake news and speculation. They occur especially often during the preparation and conduct of military exercises. Rumours give rise to mistrust and fear, on the basis of which wars usually begin.

This almost happened in 1983, when NATO began large-scale exercises near the Soviet borders with the use of the nuclear triad and massive missile launches without the notification of the Soviet side. In the absence of clarity, the Soviet leadership perceived the exercise as the deployment of NATO forces for a large-scale strike. The Soviet rocket missile operators had already “put their fingers on the button.”

The widespread belief that OST remains a useful tool is confirmed by the fact that at the July 6 conference, many participants reaffirmed their desire to resume OST inspection flights as soon as the pandemic subsides. There is little doubt that flights will resume as soon as the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

From a technical point of view, the national intelligence of the OST member states can probably replace the Treaty in terms of control over significant troop movements. Today, there are many tracking tools in the world: satellites, various trackers, cyber assets, and even social media. The United States may share data from reconnaissance satellites with countries in Europe and Canada. But the OST should not be judged solely in terms of the data collection. The Open Skies Treaty is not just an agreement between Russia and other countries, but an agreement between dozens of countries that provide each other with information, and it becomes available to everyone. Its value is not in the volume and digital resolution of photo and video materials. The OST is more important not as a means of collecting information, but as a political confidence-building measure that demonstrates that countries are ready to open their skies to inspect by other states. This kind of relationship is worth cherishing.

The WikiLeaks disclosures show that trust and reputation are worth much more than the provision of information. And it seems that in the coming months Russian diplomacy will have a difficult task – to weigh transparency, find a measure of trust and determine the price of the open skies.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.