Main Image Credit A Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-214ON on an Open Skies observation mission. Courtesy of Dmitry Zherdin/Wikimedia Commons.
Over the last few months RUSI has been covering the Open Skies Treaty debate from a variety of angles: 'Strengthening Arms Control Through Multilateralism, and Multilateralism Through Arms Control' by Tomáš Petříček, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. 'The Open Skies Treaty and Prospects for European Confidence-Building Measures' by Sarah Martin and Nick Reynolds. Today, RUSI publishes a Russian perspective on the future of the Treaty.
Franklin D Roosevelt once said that ‘repetition does not transform a lie into a truth’. Ironically, the present US Administration is making every effort to prove the contrary. In recent years we have witnessed a series of Washington withdrawals from crucial arms control agreements, in the same tawdry scenario: the US government renounces obligations it previously acquired under a treaty it now finds annoying on the pretext that the other party is not complying, yet without producing any evidence. And, as behoves the current pattern of transatlantic relations, Washington advises European capitals in a ‘pragmatic way’ what is expected from them on this or that matter. US allies are then expected to back these measures under the guise of blind ‘solidarity’, regardless of their own objective national interests.
However, the recent announcement of Washington’s intention to formally withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty (OST) has caused a backlash even in European countries, revealing a strong disagreement over ways of upholding their collective security. And there are sound reasons for their objections.
First of all, the Treaty is widely seen as an important tool of mutual transparency and confidence building. It permits each State Party to conduct short-notice reconnaissance flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities, an activity which has resulted in more than 1500 observation flights over the last two decades. One example of the efficiency of the Treaty came in 2014, when amid allegations of Russia’s military build-up in regions adjacent to the border with Ukraine, Moscow accepted 19 observation flights in that area. Results of these observation flights were discussed at the OSCE and helped to allay suspicions over the alleged concentration of Russian troops and thereby reduced tensions between Moscow and the West.
The Treaty is based on the principle of equality of rights and obligations. This means that each State Party has the right to conduct the same number of observation flights as the number of observation flights accepted. Given the fact that NATO members do not conduct flights over each other, Russia accepts the majority of missions (over 500). The US, by the way, conducts about twice as many flights over the Russian territory, either by itself or together with other States Parties, as Russia does over the US.
This inequality also applies to sharing data collected from observation missions. The Treaty allows State Parties to obtain observation imagery from each other upon request, leaving Russia with a much lower capacity to gather data on military forces and activities in NATO territories. This largely shifts the balance of information collected during the flights away from Russia’s favour.
Besides, we have to maintain – in constant readiness – two points of entry/exit, 13 Open Skies refuelling airfields, as well as 28 alternately designated airfields for almost weekly observation flights over Russia. These figures are simply not comparable with the contribution of any other State Party to the Treaty’s functioning.
Rebutting Allegations of Russian Non-Compliance
It is essential that none of the other State Parties believe accusations that Russia’s alleged non-compliance is serious enough to jeopardise the Treaty. For here too, facts can clarify the true situation.
The US claims that Russia has violated the OST by not allowing a US–Canadian mission to conduct one of the segments of the agreed mission plan during the Centre 2019 military exercise held in the Southern Urals in September 2019. Yet this restriction was due to the difficulties in ensuring OST flights safety amid the rapidly changing situation during the active phase of the exercise. In accordance with the Treaty, an alternative time slot for the flight was proposed by Russia. However, this proposal was rejected. During recent hearings at the US Congress independent experts have disagreed with the description of Russia’s measure as a ‘violation’ of the Treaty.
The US also insists that Russia has violated the Treaty by limiting the flight distance from the Kaliningrad Region to 500 km. Yet that limit was introduced in full accordance with the OST (Annex E, paragraphs 4 and 5A) and the Open Skies Consultative Committee Decision No. 3/04 (Subparagraphs 1(a), 1(b) and 1(c)). And that was a reaction to the disproportionate intensity and duration of observation flights by NATO countries over Kaliningrad which endangered the safety of civil aviation.
Nonetheless, even with the new limit in place, the arrangements ensure a higher level of observation efficiency of the Kaliningrad region compared with the rest of the territory of Russia and other State Parties, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Any observation flight allows 77% to 98% of the Kaliningrad region to be observed, notwithstanding this limitation. The US has introduced a comparable restriction on observation flights over Alaska which allows State Parties to see as little as 2.7% of its territory.
Finally, the US claims that Russia, contrary to the OST, has set up an exclusion corridor along the border of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. One may, of course, enter into discussion on whether these countries do qualify as independent countries, and therefore whether they can avail themselves of the provisions that no observation flights are allowed closer than 10 km from their borders. Yet the problem is purely artificial. The established 10 km zone amounts only to a mere 0.02% of Russian territory, while existing equipment allows the US to obtain imagery of these areas without flying over them. Instead of sorting this out through technical solutions, the US incited Georgia, which of course claims sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to close its entire territory to Russian Open Skies missions, an obvious and gross violation of the Open Skies Treaty obligations.
Serious Breaches by the US
To sum up, the US grievances over Russian ‘non-compliance’ relate to trivial matters. They can be settled in the framework of appropriate mechanisms established under the OST. No other Party has ever discussed these disagreements as a reason for raising the prospects of withdrawal from the Treaty. Meanwhile, Washington is yet to provide answers to long-standing questions on a number of its own rather serious breaches of the OST. I consider it crucial to reiterate them once again.
In 2015, the US failed to ensure the safe arrival of the Russian An-30B observation aircraft at the point of entry/exit, by refusing to provide the required number of intermediate airfields. This US position has not changed since. This runs counter to the Open Skies Consultative Commission decision No. 2/05 and undermines the spirit of the Treaty, which the US claims to uphold.
The US has cancelled night-time rest stops for observation aircraft crews at the Robins (Georgia), Ellsworth (South Dakota), Travis (California) and Elmendorf (Alaska) refuelling airfields. This violates the observing party’s right to conduct observation flights at the established maximum flight distance while respecting the crew’s workload limits. All of this impeded the normal conduct of flights.
Next, the US has violated the Treaty by establishing a maximum flight distance over Hawaii from the Hickam refuelling airfield. According to the Treaty, the maximum flight distance is established only from Open Skies airfields (rather than refuelling airfields) and is calculated following specific rules. The distance limit of 900 km established by the US does not comply with the Treaty in any case, as this distance, if calculated correctly, must be at least 1160 km.
In another OST violation, the US has imposed restrictions on observation flights over the Aleutian Islands, according to which the observation aircraft always has to remain within the outer limit of the adjacent zone, spanning 24 nautical miles from the coast. There is no provision in the Treaty for such a restriction which reduces the efficiency of observation flights over the US territory.
The cancellation by the US of night-time rest stops at the King Salmon and Cold Bay refuelling airfields in Alaska affects the safety of the observation flight since this measure increases the crew’s workload up to 14–16 hours.
Furthermore, the US is imposing restrictions on the minimum altitude of observation flights over its territory, which are not provided for by the OST and run counter to International Civil Aviation Organisation rules that are aimed at minimising civil aviation disturbance from military flights.
Broader Questions of Reliability
The US administration’s pattern of behaviour raises a question about its ability to be a reliable partner, capable of adhering to international commitments. Without any plausible explanation for the logic of its policy towards the OST, we can only assume that the Treaty has become an additional victim of the disparaging attitude of today’s Washington to arms control agreements signed by previous administrations.
While seeking maximum transparency from other countries, the US would like to conceal its own territory from observation. These measures of mutual trust, commonly acknowledged as such by most countries, are often perceived in Washington almost as a threat to US national security and sovereignty. The OST and the New Start Treaty remain the only treaties of the wide architecture of agreements that helped end the Cold War. The future of both remains unclear due to the current US position.
Rather than going into the details of the possible damage to the national interests of each NATO member as a result of an OST collapse (the subject is being widely discussed elsewhere), I would like to draw attention to a broader perspective. The Treaty helps de-escalate tensions and prevent misinterpretation of others’ military intentions. It is exactly what NATO continuously requests from Russia. The OST also provides a reliable channel of communication on military matters, which can hardly be replaced in the future, especially given the current deplorable level of military dialogue. As a result, a reduction of transparency and mutual trust would lead to growing defence and security requirements that can be satisfied only by costly new military preparations. Humanity as a whole and the Euro-Atlantic region in particular do not need a new arms race, an outdated phenomenon which cannot be further from our peoples’ concerns and aspirations.
We hope that political realism will prevail. For its part, Russia stands ready to engage in discussions on the existing disagreements, provided such dialogue will be equal and mutually respectful.
Andrei Kelin is the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.