The Open Skies Treaty

Western partners should apprehend that it's not possible to provide their own security not taking into account security interests of Russia and its allies
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The Open Skies Treaty (OST) was designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants a possibility to gather information about military forces and activities of concern to them by conducting observation flights of unarmed reconnaissance aircraft over each other's territories.

The concept of "mutual aerial observation" was initially proposed in 1955 by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, at that stage the attempt to reach an agreement failed.

The idea of the Treaty was eventually revitalised as an initiative of U.S. President (and former Central Intelligence Agency Director) George H. W. Bush put forward in 1989. Negotiated by the then-members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact or their successor states, the agreement was signed in Helsinki, Finland, on 24 March 1992.

It entered into force on 1 January 2002, with US participation being as a prerequisite. The Treaty currently has 33 party-states. The idea of allowing countries to openly observe each other is thought to prevent misunderstandings (e.g., to assure a potential opponent that one's country is not about to go to war) and limit the escalation of tensions. Open Skies has been one of the most ambitious international efforts to date, promoting openness and transparency of military forces and activities.

For many years, US and European experts, together with their colleagues from Russia, Belarus and other post-Soviet states, were applying all their efforts to strengthen the capabilities of Open Skies community, thus making our world safer.

However, the United States officially withdrew on 22 November 2020. Russia expressed its regret with regard to the decision. This step, which did not come as a surprise against the backdrop of the US Government's general policy 2 towards international agreements, including those concerning non-proliferation and disarmament, already had caused serious damage to arms control and was a major blow to European security.

From the outset the US announcement of its withdrawal from the Treaty was accompanied by far-fetched accusations against the Russian Federation “flagrantly violating” the Treaty and “distorting” its essence. “Namely, Russia (1) established a 500-kilometre ‘sub-limit’ on flight distances over the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad since 2015; (2) refused to allow observation flights to approach within 10 kilometres of Russia's border with the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; (3) denied a flight segment over a major military exercise (TSENTR) in September 2019; and (4) designated an airfield in Russian occupied Crimea which remains a part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine as an Open Skies refuelling airfield in an attempt to advance its false narrative that Crimea is legally part of Russia”.

Russia reiterated its position in response to such claims on numerous occasions, inter alia, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ comments (dated 23 April 2020) with regard to the 2020 Annual US Department of State Report on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements”. Those who wish so may familiarise themselves with it on the Russian MFA website (

In particular, Russia has made it clear that a maximum flight distance of 500 kilometres over the Kaliningrad Oblast (Region) has been established and enforced in keeping with OST provisions and the decisions by the OSCC, an international body dealing with the Treaty implementation. This arrangement provides for the same effectiveness of observation as in the case of flights over the rest of the Russian Federation and the territories of neighbour states (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia).

Incidentally, given the existing observation flight distances, the United States can observe and take pictures of 77% of the Kaliningrad region and 3 other OST party-states can have imagery of 96% of the territory during one observation flight over that exclave. To compare, a Russian aircraft can obtain images of only 3% of Alaska. Thus, observation effectiveness in the Kaliningrad region is 30 times higher than in Alaska.

Restrictions for the OST flights along Russia's border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognised by Russia as independent states, have been introduced under the Treaty provision that prohibits flights within 10 kilometres of a border with a non-party state.

The restriction with regard to one of the segments of the agreed mission plan in September 2019 during the “Center 2019” military exercise was due to the difficulties in ensuring the OST flight safety amid rapidly changing situation during the active phase of the exercise. An alternative time for conducting the flight over the segment was proposed to the observing party, in accordance with the Treaty. However, that proposal was rejected.

On the issue of the refuelling airfield in Crimea, the Russian Federation proceeds from the need to ensure the possibility of observing any point on its sovereign territory under the Treaty. It is up to other participants to decide whether they use that facility or not.

Notwithstanding the fact that Russia has committed no violations of the OST (which was recognised in the State Department reports on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements” to include 2017), it made several steps to accommodate the concerns of Treaty partners.

In particular, Moscow introduced a set of ideas how to resolve the problem of observation flights over Georgia and over 10-km zones along the Russian border in the Caucasus. But they were rejected by those who do not care for the future of the OST.

Moreover, last year permission was given to conduct an observation flight over the Kaliningrad region at a distance that exceeded the 500 km limit, and also 4 all necessary conditions were created for a successful flight over the area where the KA VKAZ-2020 (Caucasus-2020) military exercise was held.

However, both signals were ignored.

In tum, Russia maintained several serious concerns regarding the implementation by the United States of their obligations under the OST. Those claims were emphasised, inter alia, by the Russian delegation at the Fourth Review Conference of the Treaty on 7 October 2020.

Here are just some of them.

1) Introducing a de facto ban on observation flights over US territory by refusing to provide transit airfields necessary for Russian An-30B aircraft;

2) Restricting Russia's right to observe the Aleutian Islands;

3) De facto restricting the maximum flight distance by banning night-time rest stops at the refuelling airfields, which resulted in exceeding crew workload limits;

4) De facto reducing the flight distance over Alaska by wrongfully including into it the transit flight over open seas;

5) Understating the observation flight distance over the Hawaiian Islands;

6) Introducing altitude limits for observation aircraft, which are not set forth in the Treaty on Open Skies and run counter to ICAO's recommendations;

7) Making unjustified delays in issuing visas to designated personnel;

8) Failing to observe the established timeframe for paying arrears for observation flights;

9) Inciting Georgia to violate the Treaty on Open Skies;

10) Sending old aircraft in an unsatisfactory technical condition for performing Open Skies missions, thus putting the lives and health of designated personnel at risk.

Other Russian concerns have dealt with problems of OST implementation by U.S. NATO allies and "partners".

In particular, France has so far (since 2002) failed to provide information on the procedures for conducting observation flights over remote territories, thus preventing their conduct.

The United Kingdom has established flight altitude restrictions not provided for in the Treaty, thus preventing the use of certified configurations of Russian observation aircraft, and also so far (since 2002) has failed to provide information on the procedures for conducting observation flights over remote territories, thus preventing their conduct.

Canada ruled out the possibility of conducting observation flights over its territory and over the territory of the United States by refusing to provide a sufficient number of intermediate stops for Russian An-30B aircraft. It has established flight altitude restrictions not provided for in the Treaty, thus preventing the use of certified configurations of Russian observation aircraft. It has failed to comply with the established time-frames and procedures for issuing visas to designated personnel.

Poland has banned, or imposed restrictions on, flights over "prohibited areas" and in hazardous airspace. These measures do not comply with the provisions of the Treaty on Open Skies and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommendations.

Norway has restricted the use of certified configurations of Russian observation aircraft.

Georgia unilaterally ceased to implement its obligations with regard to Russia and does not allow Russian observation flights, which is a flagrant breach of the Treaty.

This set of Russian claims might be continued.

Russia expressed readiness in principle to address all relevant issues, including its own concerns and those of its partners, in a comprehensive way, at a “small group” on the margins of the Open Skies Consultative Commission. Unfortunately, the United States has arrogantly ignored Russian proposals, while insisting that its claims be addressed immediately. The US then hastily left the consultations and thereafter used those far-fetched accusations as a pretext for taking “countermeasures”, and later - for withdrawing from the Treaty.

Since May 2020, the Russian Federation carefully followed and analysed statements and actions of other party-states and warned them on many occasions that its future steps depend on them. As Russian proposals for ensuring the viability of the Treaty were disregarded and given the resulting threats to the security interests of the Russian Federation in this respect, the decision was taken to initiate domestic procedures for the withdrawal from the Treaty.

Russia has regularly informed the United States about implementation of those procedures. Provided that in May 2020 the-then candidate for US presidency J.Biden sharply criticised the decision to withdraw from the OST, calling it "shortsighted", and strongly urged to remain in the Treaty and work with allies on its problems, a chance was offered to the new US Administration to preserve the Open Skies regime by clearly stating the intent to rejoin the Treaty. In such a case the way would have been open for resuming discussions on mutual concerns vis-a-vis the OST implementation.

On the other hand, it was made clear that if US does not reverse its decision and does not rejoin the Treaty Russia would definitely leave it.

However, on 27 May 2021 the State Department informed the Russian MFA that Washington will not seek to rejoin the Treaty. To justify that decision the same "arguments" were used as those quoted by Donald Trump a year ago.

Russia has more than once saved the Treaty from disintegration, sometimes at the expense of its own interests. It should not be expected to offer unilateral concessions to the detriment of its security.

The responsibility for the highly likely decline of the Open Skies rests solely on the US.

One can ask who will lose the most from the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty?

The states that have cutting-edge means of national technical means of verification (primarily satellites) may be able to partly replace the information previously provided under the Treaty. But only partly, as it is much more difficult and expensive to retarget satellites and hence change their orbits than to send an observation aircraft. Most importantly, unlike the satellites, aircraft provide an opportunity "to take a look under the clouds".

Those European states that do not have satellites will face more problems. They probably should not expect the United States to generously share its satellite images with them. A case in point is the US’ denial to provide satellite data badly needed for the investigation of the MH-17 crash.

If we look at the bigger picture, it is necessary to admit that all current OST party-states and ultimately European security in general will be among the losers. First of all, the Treaty contributes to de-escalation of tensions and prevents any misinterpretation of the parties' military intentions, which is exactly what NATO constantly urges.

Second, it is a crucial instrument of military-to-military contact and cooperation, which in itself facilitates confidence-building. In light of the obvious shortage of common European dialogue platforms on military security, it will be very difficult to make up for the loss of this vital channel of professional communication. Finally, generally less openness leads to less confidence and, consequently, to less security, which will have to be ensured through other, more expensive methods.

Western partners should apprehend that it's not possible to provide their own security not taking into account security interests of Russia and its allies. Rather than viewing Russia as an adversary, it's better to work together for better security relying on the long and fruitful experience taken within the OST.

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