The Open Skies Treaty and the prospects for European confidence-building measures

Officials in Donald Trump’s administration have now announced that the United States will formally withdraw in six months from the Open Skies Treaty. The viability of multilateral confidence and security measures is called into question.

The 1992 Open sky treaty might be a relatively obscure measure to the average person in the Western public, but U.S. involvement has always been essential to its functioning, and its effective disbandment would deal yet another blow to the post-Cold War international security framework . While the Withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was the most publicized gesture of the administration of Donald Trump, it was one of a series of withdrawals agreements that constitute the main pillars of the arms control regime.


There are qualities in the treaty, which was designed to allow unarmed people to aerial surveillance flights across the territory of its participants to enhance mutual understanding and trust, making it a relatively easy target for critics. Obviously, it is of limited scale. According to the official fact sheet, “The Russian Federation and the United States each have an annual passive quota from 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 controllable and are potentially dangerous for their crews; the conduct of observation flights is regularly hampered by maintenance problems. The United States also no transition yet aircraft cameras are moving away from wet film photography in favor of digital equipment due to lack of funds. And although the Russians were the first to switch to modern digital photography, they only did it in 2016. With so few flights using obsolete equipment, the observation activity carried out under the treaty is clearly inferior to the capacity of satellites to observe the territory, and the advances made in satellite technology since the initial ratification of the treaty. mean that its removal will have little practical impact on the main signatories of the treaty. There is therefore some merit in the argument that the Open Skies Treaty has lost its usefulness.

Russian obstruction

In addition, the Open Skies Treaty has been subjected to Russian obstructionism. Moscow undermined the trust mechanisms provided for in the treaty by using bureaucratic arguments to deny observation planes the right to fly over Kaliningrad, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the latter two contested the Georgian territories occupied by the Russian troops and proxies), and often restricted or banned the use of their airfields. Furthermore, a number of treaty signatories have collectively carried out missions over southwestern Russia and Ukraine at the time of the Russian military incursion into Ukraine in 2014, establishing a fuller understanding of the situation. This led to fears that Moscow will take further steps to ensure that the treaty is no longer used in a conflict zone like this.

There have also been worrying allegations that Russia could use their overflights. mapping American infrastructure for offensive targeting purposes. While it is true that thefts could collect images that could aid targeting efforts, this is in practice a less serious charge. Given Russia’s alternative capabilities to collect similar images, the treaty is unlikely to place the United States or its allies at increased risk.

Enduring value

Nonetheless, Open Skies enjoyed the support of American political and defense institutions. In May 2018, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis written to Republican Senator from Nevada Deb Fischer, “It is in our nation’s best interests to remain a party to the Open Skies Treaty,” in response to his comments that Russia is undermining the treaty. Former US 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 do a lot more flights over Russia than Russia does over the United States. Subject matter experts, such as Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group, also believe opting out of 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 Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures (often abbreviated as the Vienna Document). However, the CFE Treaty, which sets numerical limits on the signatories’ inventories of conventional vehicles and weapons, came to an end when Russia retired in 2015 on the ongoing dispute over its role in the conflicts in Georgia and Ukrainian, and now the Open Skies Treaty also seems to be unfolding.

And that will be a shame because although general trust and security are the main characteristics of the treaty, it is the information-sharing provisions that make the Open Skies Treaty unique. Under the treaty, states are not only allowed to “conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights throughout the territories of others to collect data on military forces and activities”, but also that states can request this information at cost. If the United States were to withdraw from the agreement, the lost observation capacity that Washington would lose would make little sense to the United States but, with the collapse of the treaty, it would leave states like Ukraine more exposed in the a vulnerable position. In addition, small states lack advanced observation satellites and may suffer from poor situational awareness. Information gathered under the treaty has compensated for this in the past, for example, help with conflict monitoring since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All this could now disappear.

If the treaty collapses, whether because of Russian reluctance or the US gesture of withdrawal, the indirect result will jeopardize the safety of minor signatories. And it is not at all clear that European states would be able to negotiate a similar substitution agreement in the future.

What is the left standing?

Yet despite the Trump administration’s tendency to dismiss international agreements as unimportant or detrimental to U.S. interests, some confidence and security measures appear set to remain in place for the foreseeable future. The Vienna Document – the last of the European security troika – has so far avoided any serious call for the withdrawal of its signatories, although, like the Open Skies Treaty, it is in dire need of reform.

The provisions of the Vienna Document, which impose limits on instant exercises and detail the 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 combat vehicles or 250 self-propelled artillery platforms / multiple rocket launch systems. Yet in an era of shrinking force sizes, but with increasingly capable and lethal formations and platforms, the instant drills below the reporting threshold are still of a magnitude where they cause alarm and can damage relationships between neighbors. Nevertheless, the Vienna Document, as one of the security cooperation treaties between Russia, the United States and Europe, retains lasting symbolic and practical importance, as it provides a framework for dialogue and cooperation at a time when all large-scale military activity is greeted with immediate suspicion and mistrust.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the United States’ withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty will be to further reinforce the narrative that the United States 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 in the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Nick reynolds is the Research Analyst for Ground 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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