Closed Skies and the Collapse of Arms Control
Online Discussion
List of speakers

On July 7, the Valdai Club held an online discussion, titled “The Open Skies Treaty and the United States’ Pullout,” following the results of the conference of signatories to the Treaty on Open Skies (OST), which ended the day before. At the beginning of the discussion, Ivan Timofeev, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, invited participants to consider the situation surrounding the presumed future US withdrawal from the OST in the broader context of the gradual erosion of the arms control regime.

Oleg Bushuev, Head of the Conventional Arms Control Division of the Department of Non-Proliferation and Arms Control of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, briefly talked about the course of the conference held on June 6 and summed up its results, outlining the parties’ claims regarding each other. He called the OST an important element of transparency, peace and trust, and emphasised that the partners of Russia under the treaty need it to the same extent that Russia does. According to him, all parties spoke in principle for the preservation of the agreement. “All options are open for us, but we will build further steps only on the basis of mutual interests,” he explained. Answering the moderator’s question, Bushuev also touched upon the problem of the non-transmission of intelligence information to America by its NATO allies in the event of its withdrawal from the treaty.

Vadim Kozyulin, PIR Center’s Asian Security, Emerging Technologies and Global Security project director, said the claims by the parties do not look insoluble and do not look like a real excuse for the United States to withdraw from the treaty. The exit from OST of a key participant, in his opinion, certainly depreciates the document. “A hole appears in the open sky, and in a most interesting place,” he said, figuratively. If, as a result, the agreement disappears, this will not immediately lead to disaster, but will make the situation much more dangerous. Cooperation and trust will be lost, and the symbolic effect of the “closed sky” will arise. However, there is a hope that the US withdrawal will lead to new initiatives by other parties to the treaty and the modernisation of other agreements. To prevent the collapse of the arms control system, fresh people and fresh initiatives are needed, the expert concluded.

In turn, Peter Topychkanov, Senior Researcher at the SIPRI Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme, noted the possibility that if the administration changes in Washington following the election results, the United States may return to the treaty. In his opinion, the document is important not so much in itself as a means of collecting information, but as a symbol of trust and openness. At the same time, he also sees certain positive aspects in what is happening. In particular, he believes that other members of the treaty now have the opportunity to evaluate their own security interests as individual countries, and not as US allies. “For European countries, this is a chance to realize their interests and soberly evaluate them and speak out for the preservation or non-preservation of the agreement,” he stressed.

Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, commented on the reasons for the US withdrawing from the OST from an American point of view. According to him, an important role was played by the suspicion that Russia uses the treaty to collect intelligence data for military purposes. Against the backdrop of the resumption of rivalry between the great powers, issues of this kind have become more alarming to the United States. “The US administration is coming out to demonstrate that it takes all the treaties very seriously,” he said, adding that, as with the withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the threat of America’s withdrawal from the New START Treaty should also be taken seriously. He emphasised that at the same time, the US withdrawal from the OST would not render it pointless, since Russia would still be able to monitor American military bases in Europe.