US Withdraws From the Open Skies Treaty

For the foreseeable future, the consequences of the US withdrawal from the Treaty are likely to be minor. The July 6 meeting made it clear that no other country would leave the OST in the near future. Under the Treaty, the United States could perform or receive only 42 observation flights per year, which is not a lot given the large number of satellites in orbit.

On July 6, the parties to the Open Skies Treaty (OST) met at a special online conference to discuss the future of the Treaty in light of the US decision to leave it in November.

At this session, none of the other parties announced their intention to withdraw from the Treaty, although the Russian government confirmed its right to do so later. Meanwhile, there is reason to believe that if Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, wins the US presidential election, his administration could return to the OST Treaty next year.

The stated purpose of the Treaty is   “to contribute to the further development and consolidation of peace, stability and security development through cooperation.” This Treaty is also aimed at “promoting openness and transparency, facilitating monitoring of existing or future arms control agreements and enhancing capabilities for crisis prevention and crisis management”.

In recent months, US State Department officials have outlined several compelling reasons for withdrawing from the Treaty, of which it is necessary to highlight the main ones.

First, according to the US government, Russia did not fully comply with the terms of the agreement. A sore point is Moscow’s long-term practice of limiting flights over the territory of the Russian Federation during certain periods of time and over certain zones. The treaty does not allow for declaring any part of the territory of a State Party as off-limits to observation flights.

Most of all, apparently, it was not any specific deviation from the requirements of the Treaty that annoyed American officials, but the consistent nature of various kinds of violations on the part of Russia. Christopher Ford, US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, has expressed dissatisfaction with Moscow's “changing kaleidoscope of various violations” – from restrictions on flights to a ban on flights during Russian national holidays.

According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on May 21, 2020, provided a six-month notice of withdrawal from the Treaty, “Russia has consistently acted as if it were free to turn its obligations off and on at will, unlawfully denying or restricting Open Skies observation flights whenever it desires,” but now the Trump administration has decided to call Russia to account.

However, Ford added that the US decision to withdraw from the Treaty, in fact, reflected “a combination of circumstances”. He explained that “these kinds of moves are deeply offensive and undermine trust in Russia’s good faith. It’s improper to use a treaty, we think, as a political weapon to advance propaganda about regional aggression like that, and we think this is sort of a perversion, in effect, of the purposes of the treaty.”

In this regard, the second stated reason for the US withdrawal from the OST was the concern that Russia is using the Treaty as a weapon against the United States and as a tool to advance its interests in an increasingly competitive so-called superpower struggle.

Thus, in a legal sense, Russia seeks to legitimise its disputed territorial claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, restricting flights near these occupied regions of Georgia in order to force other countries to accept Moscow's false statements that these areas are in fact independent countries. Likewise, by designating an airfield in Crimea as a base for refuelling open skies aircraft, Moscow is trying to achieve de facto recognition of its illegal annexation of the peninsula.

In addition, US officials are concerned that Russian observation aircraft are using the Treaty for military purposes – collecting images of critical Western infrastructure to more efficiently target their precision missiles, and possibly cyber weapons.

The logic is that unlike the United States, Russia was unable to create an effective network of reconnaissance satellites due to limited funding and a number of other problems. However, the Russian military has recently invested in upgraded surveillance aircraft – for example, a modified Tu-154M aircraft in 2016 was equipped with digital electro-optical sensors.

Moreover, in 2019, the newest Tu-214 ON (open skies) aircraft, specially created to perform inspection flights under the Treaty over the territories of the United States and Canada, began flying. This more modern reconnaissance aircraft is equipped with a full range of aviation surveillance hardware permitted by the Treaty. The data obtained from the Tu-214ON are of better quality and are more informative.

Thus, in principle, Russia can use open skies flights to obtain individual images of objects, data that Russian satellites cannot provide in full.

Interestingly, US intelligence officials warned of this possibility even before Donald Trump was elected president. In March 2016, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the US Department of Defense Intelligence Agency, brought to the attention of members that “the things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing, allows Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities.”

Fourth, by withdrawing from the OST, the INF Treaty and other treaties, the Trump administration wanted to demonstrate its extremely serious attitude to the observance of the arms control regime, as well as Washington’s determination to withdraw from the treaty in case of violations or actions bypassing the treaty by its participants. These steps are also aimed at strengthening Washington’s position in the negotiations on the extension of the New START Treaty, which will justify the US demands that Russia make big concessions.

Finally, while the Pentagon is seeking to upgrade its surveillance aircraft, Congress has declined to provide the requested funds, spending money on America’s finest space-based reconnaissance satellite system – thereby effectively diminishing the importance of OST for the United States.

In particular, the Pentagon has repeatedly tried to update two OS-135B Open Skies aircraft, released back in 1961, including replacing their film optical cameras with digital equipment. However, Congress declined to fund these upgrades, citing an existing advanced (and very expensive) space-based reconnaissance satellite network.

For the foreseeable future, the consequences of the US withdrawal from the Treaty are likely to be minor. The July 6 meeting made it clear that no other country would leave the OST in the near future. Under the Treaty, the United States could perform or receive only 42 observation flights per year, which is not a lot given the large number of satellites in orbit.

Admittedly, surveillance aircraft and reconnaissance satellites collect different types of information. However, the real value of US involvement was to symbolise US cooperation with Russia when relations were good, or, as in 2014, US solidarity with countries opposed to Russia through targeted flights.

In addition, Russian-American arms control relations are already so bad that withdrawing from the OST is unlikely to make them worse. Meanwhile, the Treaty’s participants are concerned about other problems such as the coronavirus pandemic, elections, etc. Even in the expert community, attention remains focused on the issue of extending the Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty (New START Treaty), which is set to expire in February 2021.

As for the long-term perspective, it remains to be seen whether Russia will remain a member of the OST. Russian officials left this option open at their July 6 meeting. If Moscow leaves the OST, then the treaty itself will disintegrate. It makes no sense for other states to remain members of it, since they focus mainly on Russia's military activities. Russia gets many more Open Skies flights than any other country.

Moscow's withdrawal from the Treaty would support the official opinion of the Russian government that the United States is destroying another arms control regime. At the same time, it is worth noting that such a withdrawal of Russia would be strategically costly, since Russian observation aircraft would not be able to fly over US military bases in Europe.

If Russia remains in the Treaty, it will allow the United States to rejoin the OST. Biden’s team opposed the decision to withdraw from it, but can only return if the Treaty still exists. It is easier to maintain an existing multilateral international treaty than to conclude a new one. While the Russian government insists that Washington will have to accept any changes to the OST after it leaves, they are likely to be minor in the coming months.

The last question concerns Western solidarity. It is clear that the Russian government will try to exploit the transatlantic disagreement over the OST. Many NATO members and partners agree that some of Russia’s actions have violated the treaty, but others consider these actions not serious enough to justify withdrawing from the Treaty and regret the US decision.

Since Washington has not achieved a consensus among its allies on its withdrawal from the OST, which is a multilateral agreement, unlike the bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), the United States must avoid putting pressure on its partners to withdraw from the Treaty. The United States will also have to take additional measures to allay the concerns of its European allies that arose as a result of Washington's withdrawal from the OST.

For example, Washington may pursue plans to transfer additional information to European states to compensate for the loss of intelligence as a result of the US withdrawal from the Agreement, since the US’s European allies have weaker space intelligence. Without a doubt, the procedure for the exchange of highly classified data from satellites is more burdensome than the sharing of information collected by observer aircraft of the States which are parties to the Treaty.

Fortunately, while the proliferation of appropriate military technology can have devastating consequences for the arms control regime (such as the proliferation of ballistic missile technology in many non-INF Treaty countries), improvements in commercial space technology can help fill the gap. Currently, commercially available images are about as good as the images taken from OST flights. It is very likely that they will become even better and significantly cheaper, given skyrocketing private sector participation in this area.

Undoubtedly, observing aircraft flights are cheaper and more efficient than retargeting satellites with a corresponding change in orbits. At the same time, commercial space technology is constantly improving, the manoeuvrability of satellites is improving and the image quality of satellite images is an order of magnitude better than allowed under the OST.

Thus, taking into account the American forward grouping of reconnaissance spacecraft, for the United States, the OST carries little practical benefit from a technical point of view. OST aircraft flights can, for the most part, be replaced by optical reconnaissance from space.

However, it is necessary to emphasise the political significance of the Treaty as a tool for maintaining dialogue between states, as an important channel for professional communication between the military forces and as a means of increasing transparency and predictability, especially during a crisis. Unfortunately, we have to admit that amid the current conditions of intense competition between Russia and the United States, the OST has lost its original value as a symbol of trust between the former Cold War opponents.

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