By Kamil Szubart*
The US decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies (OST) announced by President Donald J. Trump on May 22, 2020, and then followed by a notice submitted by the US Department of State to the depositaries and all other state-parties to the Treaty, seems to be a next step of the Trump Administration’s efforts to dismantle an arms control architecture.
This time, President Trump has decided to demolish a framework for conventional arms control.
The pull-out of the United States from the INF Treaty in August 2019, and the current resolution toward the OST, has simply led to the decrease of confidence between NATO allies, and it harms both US and European security interests undermining the sense of keeping and developing the arms control systems (both conventional and nuclear) at all. So far, 10 foreign ministers of the European state parties of the treaty have expressed regret over the US announcement.
By this step, the Trump Administration will give Russia a useful tool to deepen divisions within the NATO alliance and booster anti-American narrative throughout Europe, especially in Germany and France.
The decision will benefit the Kremlin much more than preventing Russian inspectors from making observation flights over the US territory and gleaning intelligence data on the US critical infrastructure reportedly. Finally, the sudden step of President Trump would likely have an impact on possible bilateral negotiations with Russia to extend the New START Treaty signed by presidents Obama and Medvedev in Prague on April 8, 2010, which expires in February 2021.
Understanding the Meaning of Conventional Arms Control
The OST has remained a crucial pillar of the conventional arms control system founded at the end of the Cold War era.
Alongside the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) and the Vienna Document (V.D.), politically binding agreement with its last updated in 2011, the OST has belonged to stand-alone confidence, and security-building measures (CSBMs) developed in the framework of the CSCE/OSCE.
Signed on March 24, 1992, and in force since Jan. 1, 2002, the accord permits each of state-parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the others’ territories to collect data on military forces, facilities and activities, especially drills and troops’ movements.
Each aircraft be equipped with sensors that enable them to observe and identify significant pieces of military equipment, such as main battle tanks, pieces of artillery, jet fighters, combat helicopters or armored fighting vehicles. Through the 1990s and in early 2000s, 34 countries from the OSCE (the Treaty’s initial 27 signatories) have joined and ratified the OST while Kyrgyzstan (a 35th) has signed but not ratified it so far.
According to the Treaty, observation flights can be carried out over the others’ entire territories, and no area can be declared off-limits by the state-party. In practice, tensions between the OST state-parties have led to a partial suspension of the Treaty’s provisions.
Since 2010, the Russian Federation has excluded the provision of the OST alongside its border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia due to having recognized both separatist republics as independent states. In response, Georgia has, since 2012, formally suspended Russia’s right to observe its territory. In 2014, Russia imposed a 500-kilometer limit on the OST flights over Russia’s heavily armed Baltic exclave Kaliningrad. The Russians have justified the decision referring to a paragraph of the OST that allows for the legitimate refusal of access to an area bordering a non-signatory state. In 2017, the Trump Administration suddenly declared Russia’s violation of the OST, and it restricted Russian access to Hawaii and Alaska in retaliation.
All scheduled observation flights are based on passive and active quotas agreed by the all state-parties annually. A passive quota refers to a certain number of overflights and the geographic size of host-state determines it. Larger state-parties such as the US, Russia sharing its quotas with Belarus—42 quotas a year for the US and Russia each—or Ukraine (12 quotas) hold a higher number of quotas than Portugal or Denmark (Portugal have two and Denmark, six 6).
An active quota is the number of flights it may conduct over other OST countries. The OST does not require state-parties to use all quotas every year. However, the allocation of flights cannot be transferred for the next year. The first flights within the OST regime were carried out in August 2002, and since that time, more than 1,500 air observations have been conducted (including 77 US flights over Russia’s territory).
The Treaty regulates all aspects related to the observation flights, including the time of each flight (which must be completed within 96 hours after arrival at the point of entry), the necessity to submit advance notices (72 hours before the scheduled flight), specific points of entry and exit and refueling airfields, flight plans, information on inspectors, and more.
The OST indicates if each observing party may use its observation aircraft or if it must use planes supplied by the host country. Some state-parties to reduce costs have not owned observation aircraft and exploited aircraft of allies, such as the NATO member countries conducting joined observation flights over Russia and other non-NATO countries.
The Treaty Is not a Primary Intel Asset
Using the Treaty as an intelligence-gathering could have been useful during the Cold War era, but not now.
Although Russia has decided to place within its both aircraft (Tu-214 and Tu-154) used in the OST missions, new digital systems possess a more excellent range and an advanced processing capability, and the imagery could be similar to that available on the commercial market of satellite imagery.
However, under the provision of the Treaty, all new sensors and aircraft must be certified and approved by all states-parties gathered in a decision-making body of the OST: the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC). Subsequently, a copy of all data gleaned during each OST flight must be supplied to the overflown state party. Moreover, all state parties receive a mission report from each single observation mission and have the right to purchase the data gleaned by the observing state party.
Therefore, there is no doubt that the information the OST countries, including Russia, collected under the provision of the Treaty is only a value in addition to other means of intelligence gathering, especially satellite imagery. States, including some state-parties, with capabilities in imagery intelligence, can typically obtain better imagery and collect it without informing or passing to review collected data to the other party.
The Priceless Values of Détente
A cornerstone of the OST is trust-building-values and predictability among all 34 state-parties.
The Treaty undoubtedly helps to increase transparency and communication between its members. It symbolizes cooperation between distrustful countries or politico-military alliances, and in that respect, is a model for behavior. The OST is also a risk-reduction mechanism to ease tensions between the state-parties. Finally, inspectors on both sides get to know one another during the field implementation of the Treaty, leading to more interaction and more exceptional communication at the inspection level.
Although the Treaty has been in force for 18 years, the idea to set up a framework for each other’s reconnaissance flights over the territories of the US and the Soviet Union sparked in the peak of the Cold War. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed an agreement between both countries to permit aerial reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory.
Unfortunately, the US proposal was rejected by the Kremlin, claiming the initiative would be used for espionage. The idea was not abandoned definitely, and President George H.W. Bush resurrected it in 1989. The negotiations between the NATO Alliance and the Warsaw Pact were launched in 1990, parallel to simultaneous talks on the CFE Treaty signed in Paris on Nov. 19, 1990.
Both conventional and nuclear arms control systems were born at the end of the Cold War and mirror that era. However, significant progress has not been achieved since that time. Although the 2010 New START Treaty should be considered a small step forward, in the meantime, the systems have been demolished by technology, such as satellite imagery, as well as Russia’s pivot in its foreign and security policy (and that seems to be heading for a confrontation with the West under Putin).
In 2007, Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the CFE Treaty. Subsequently, in March 2015, Russia abandoned its place in the Treaty Joint Consultative Group (JCG), a main decision-making body of the CFE Treaty. The Trump Administration also has taken steps to disassemble of the architecture of arms control worldwide, first with the shutdown of the INF Treaty, and now tinkering with the OST.
Risks Over Benefits
The decision to abandon the OST will be costly to the US, and the “deal-making” President Trump should be held accountable.
First, Russia will use the abandonment as a diplomatic weapon to give saliency to the US as a country that has destroyed foundations of the international arms control systems and the concept of comprehensive and cooperative security. Moscow will feature Washington as an untrustworthy and unpredictable partner for cooperation, especially regarding politico-military dimensions. It is also sending a contradictory signal concerning the extension of the New START that expires in 2021, giving Russia a reliable card in this diplomatic play.
Secondly, the exit from the OST will leave the US at a disadvantage position among European allies from NATO, so the US should be prepared for heavy criticism coming from Berlin and Paris and a dozen of other European capitals. The US decision will be seen among European NATO partners as one more instance where the Trump Administration ignores the views and interests of its allies.
Thirdly, it is evident that Russia will use the US decision to put more substantial pressure on the US allies in Eastern Europe, such as the Baltic States, by arousing insecurity concerning an American military engagement in Europe and its allied credibility.
The goal of Moscow would be to deepen divides within NATO, especially between allies on NATO’s eastern flank and the others. Concurrently, Russia would offer an alternative to the US exit from the OST by proposing Europeans its initiatives either to replace the OST or to renew conventional arms control and cooperative security in Europe without the US. Russian propositions in this matter would surely be taken into consideration by governments of a couple of European allies.
However, there is a positive sign of the Trump Administration’s decision. It will not be the necessary for the US taxpayer to invest in replacing the more than 50-years-old Boeing OC-135B aircraft that US observers and their allies use for combined OTS flights.
But in other aspects, the US will lose. There is still a chance to revoke the decision because it will come into force in six months. However, the clock is ticking.
*Kamil Szubart was a 2017 visiting fellow at the Institute for Security Policy and Law (formerly INSCT), via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He worked as a security and defense analyst for think tanks in Poland and abroad, where he was responsible for German security and defense policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic terrorism threats in German-native-speaking countries, and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and conventional arms control. He completed international courses on the CFE Treaty and Vienna Document in the Bundeswehr Verification Center in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and the OSCE in Vienna, Austria. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the author’s current workplace.
 The 34 state-parties (plus Kyrgyzstan) to the OST are: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark (including Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.