The “open skies” treaty and the prospects for European confidence-building measures

Donald Trump administration officials have now announced that the United States will formally withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty in six months. The viability of multilateral confidence- and security-building measures is in question.

The 1992 Open Skies Treaty might be a relatively obscure measure for the average Western citizen, but U.S. participation has always been essential to its operation, and its effective dissolution would mark another blow to the international security framework of the United States. post cold war. While the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was the most publicized move by Donald Trump’s administration, it was part of a series of withdrawals from the agreements that form the main pillars of the regime of arms control.


There are qualities in the treaty, which was designed to allow unarmed aerial surveillance flights throughout the territory of its participants in order to enhance mutual understanding and trust, that make it a relatively easy target for The critics. Obviously, it is of limited scale. According to the official record, “The Russian Federation and the United States each have an annual passive quota of 42 [observation flights], while the other States Parties have quotas of 12 or less”. It is therefore not an exhaustive follow-up, but an ephemeral one.

The United States has two aging OC-135B aircraft dedicated to this task, both built in 1961 and still using analog mission equipment. The planes are barely flyable and are potentially dangerous for their crews; conducting observation flights is regularly hampered by maintenance problems. The United States must also upgrade aircraft cameras from wet film photography to digital equipment due to a lack of funds. And although the Russians were the first to switch to modern digital photography, they only did so in 2016. With so few flights using obsolete equipment, the observation activity carried out under the treaty is vastly inferior to the ability of satellites to observe territory, and advances in satellite technology since the treaty’s initial ratification mean that its removal will make little practical difference to the treaty’s major signatories. So there is some merit to the argument that the Open Skies Treaty has lost its usefulness.

Russian stonewalling

Moreover, the Open Skies Treaty has been subjected to Russian obstructionism. Moscow has undermined the trust-building mechanisms under the treaty by using bureaucratic arguments to deny observation planes the right to fly over Kaliningrad, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the latter two, Georgian territories disputed occupied by Russian troops and proxies), and often restricted or banned the use of their airfields. Additionally, a number of treaty signatories collectively conducted missions in southwestern Russia and Ukraine at the time of the Russian military incursion into Ukraine in 2014, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. This has raised fears that Moscow may take further steps to ensure the treaty is not used again in a conflict zone such as this.

There have also been disturbing allegations that Russia may use its overflights to map US infrastructure for offensive targeting. While it is true that flights could collect images that could help targeting efforts, in practice this is a lesser charge. Given the alternative capabilities Russia has to collect similar imagery, the treaty is unlikely to put the United States or its allies at increased risk.

Lasting Value

Nonetheless, Open Skies enjoyed the support of the United States political and defense establishment. In May 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote to Nevada Republican Senator Deb Fischer, “it is in our nation’s interest to remain a party to the Open Skies Treaty,” in response. to his comments about Russia undermining the treaty. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer recently noted that “it’s really hard to see what we would gain by withdrawing from the treaty… [w]We actually fly a lot more over Russia than Russia flies over the United States.” Experts in the field, such as Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group, also believe that withdrawing from the treaty is not in the best interests of the United States.

The Open Skies Treaty is widely regarded as one of the pillars of European security arrangements, along with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Buildings (often abbreviated as Document of Vienna). However, the CFE Treaty, which sets numerical limits on signatories’ inventories of conventional vehicles and weapons, was effectively terminated when Russia withdrew in 2015 due to the ongoing dispute over its role in the conflicts in Georgia. and Ukraine, and now the Open Skies Treaty is looking to go too.

And that will be a shame because although the general building of confidence and security are the main features of the treaty, it is the provisions on information sharing that make the Open Skies Treaty unique. Under the treaty, states are not only permitted to “conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the entire territories of others to collect data on military forces and activities”, but also that states may request this information for a fee. If the United States pulled out of the deal, the lost observation capability that Washington would lose would mean little to the United States but, with the treaty’s collapse, it would leave more exposed states like the Ukraine in a vulnerable position. In addition, small states lack advanced observation satellites and may suffer from poor situational awareness. Information collected under the treaty has made up for this in the past, for example by helping to monitor the conflict since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All this could now disappear.

If the treaty falls apart, whether through Russian recalcitrance or the gesture of American withdrawal, the indirect result will undermine the safety of underage signatories. And it is not at all clear that European states would be able to negotiate a similar replacement arrangement in the future.

What is the standing left?

Yet despite the Trump administration’s tendency to dismiss international agreements as irrelevant or detrimental to American interests, some confidence- and security-building measures are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. The Vienna Document – ​​the last of the European security troika – has so far avoided any serious calls for the withdrawal of its signatories, although, like the Open Skies Treaty, it is in serious need of reform.

The provisions of the Vienna Document, which impose limits on instant exercises and detail thresholds for notification of military exercises to other states, are obsolete. Currently, notification thresholds apply to exercises involving 9,000 personnel, 250 main battle tanks, 500 armored fighting vehicles or 250 self-propelled artillery/multi-launch rocket system platforms. Yet, in an age of shrinking force sizes but increasingly capable and lethal formations and platforms, instant exercises below the notification threshold are still of such magnitude as to elicit anger. worry and can damage relations between neighbours. Nevertheless, the Vienna Document, as one of the treaties of security cooperation between Russia, the United States and Europe, remains of enduring symbolic and practical importance, as it provides a framework for dialogue and cooperation at a time when any large-scale military activity is met with immediate distrust and distrust.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty will be to further reinforce the narrative that the US no longer cares about multilateral security cooperation. And that’s bad enough.

Sarah Martin works on human rights in Eurasia in Washington, DC, and was previously a research assistant at the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Nick Reynolds is a Research Analyst for Land Warfare at RUSI.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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