How a US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty would benefit the Kremlin

Gustav Gressel

Commentary - 27th May, 2020

A US withdrawal from the agreement would shift the blame from a non-compliant Moscow onto Washington, fuelling anti-Americanism and, perhaps, calls for a US military withdrawal from Europe.

On 21 May, President Donald Trump reportedly told his staff that he intended to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty. As there had been rumours about such a move for months, this hardly came as a surprise. However, such a withdrawal would be both misguided and poorly timed, providing left- and right-wing European political groups with new reasons to challenge the US military presence in Europe.

The Open Skies Treaty provides signatory states with a framework to conduct photographic reconnaissance (visual-range light, infrared, and synthetic-aperture radar) by flying unarmed aircraft over one another’s territory. The process is tightly regulated – in areas such as requests for flights, equipment certification, and the operations themselves – to prevent misuse and provide maximum transparency for inspected and inspecting parties alike. The treaty includes quotas for each country to prevent excessive use: so-called “active quotas” determine how many flights each state can conduct over other states, while “passive quotas” determine how many flights from other states each signatory must allow over its own territory. Under the agreement, photos from the missions must be shared with all signatory parties on request. In short, these flights were never a means of intelligence gathering (even if the press often depict the aircraft involved as “spy planes”) but rather confidence-building measures. Because the Vienna Document on confidence-building measures contains significant loopholes, many European states have regarded Open Skies Treaty flights as a useful instrument – especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

For nations with big space programmes – particularly Russia and the US – the value of the treaty was always somewhat questionable, as they had large numbers of satellites that provided better, more quickly accessible intelligence than the reconnaissance flights did. When it was concluded in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was meant to provide assurances to the many small and medium-sized powers that lacked access to such intelligence and – breaking with cold war tradition – closed the power gap between them and larger countries to a certain extent. Despite the fact that such satellite services became cheap and commercially available in the late 2010s, Open Skies Treaty inspection flights have remained popular among relatively small states.

Russia’s abuse of the agreement never resulted in public criticism or a campaign to pressure the country into compliance.

Like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty has raised legitimate concerns about Russian behaviour. Russia has incrementally restricted Open Skies Treaty flights by banning those from the Caucasus bordering Georgia; restricting flight time over Kaliningrad; banning flights over Crimea; and blocking flight inspections around the Centre 2019 exercise. These steps clearly violate the treaty. In addition, Russia appeared to use some of its inspection flights – such as those over the White House and one of Trump’s Gulf Estates – simply to goad the US rather than as confidence-building measures. But US withdrawal from the agreement will solve none of these problems.

Nonetheless, Russia’s antics seem to have worked – if they drove Trump’s reported decision on the Open Skies Treaty. A US withdrawal from the agreement would shift the blame from a non-compliant Moscow onto Washington, fuelling anti-Americanism and, perhaps, calls for a US military withdrawal from Europe – at a time when one party in Germany’s ruling coalition questions the presence of US nuclear weapons on the continent. Even if Europeans stuck with the treaty, a US withdrawal from the agreement would leave the Kremlin with little interest in remaining within it, let alone returning to compliance with its terms. Indeed, Moscow could abandon the unwanted obligations of the treaty while avoiding blame for doing so. Trump would once again demonstrate his willingness to hand diplomatic victories to Russian President Vladimir Putin (a tendency that will remain puzzling so long as Republicans control the Senate).

Many European countries tried to rescue the agreement by actively addressing compliance issues in the Open Sky Treaty Consultative Commission. Unfortunately, the effort was a half-hearted exercise in backroom diplomacy. Europeans made no attempt to rally wider support for the treaty. Indeed, Russia’s abuse of the agreement never resulted in public criticism or a campaign to pressure the country into compliance. This seems to have led some within Washington’s security establishment to think that the treaty had little value. As it is difficult to change Trump’s mind on any given topic, US officials may have simply decided to pick their battles by focusing on other important issues instead.

There is little Europeans can do to persuade Russia to stay within the treaty framework, if the US withdraws from it. However, they could reach out to Belarus, to determine whether it wanted to remain within the framework. This is because while, in 1992, Russia and Belarus were a treated as a single entity (along with Ukraine) under the treaty, differences in implementing the agreement soon prompted Belarus to apply for independent active and passive quotas. Although outreach to Belarus would not save the Open Skies Treaty as a confidence-building measure for the whole of Europe, it would at least strengthen the country’s sovereignty and give its president, Alexander Lukashenko, an additional legal argument to block the establishment of Russian military bases on Belarusian soil. And, in the Balkans, the treaty will remain in use to monitor military manoeuvres and installations in several formerly Yugoslav states.

Read more on: Europe and the world , Wider Europe, Russia, European Power, Transatlantic relationship

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Latest from ECFR