With U.S. President Joe Biden now in the White House, tensions between the United States and Russia are likely to grow. The new U.S. president will increase pressure on Moscow and attempt to curb Russia’s military and economic clout further. Russia, meanwhile, is shifting to a policy of “total containment.” Selective dialogue remains possible, but unilateral concessions are out of the question. The latest victim of this systemic conflict is the Open Skies Treaty. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on January 15, 2021, that it would begin the domestic procedure for withdrawal from Open Skies and upon completion send the respective notification to the treaty depositaries, Canada and Hungary. Moscow is thus following the United States, which left the treaty on November 22, 2020. Without U.S. or Russian involvement, the treaty will lose its strategic purpose. Its end will also deprive the West of yet another instrument of confidence building with Russia, and confirm the steady irrelevance of Europe in military security policy.  

The Open Skies Treaty allows its thirty-three member states in Europe and North America to conduct joint, unarmed observation flights over each other’s territory at seventy-two hours’ notice. Its political and intellectual founding father was the United States. The concept goes back to the 1950s, when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower proposed a mutual aerial observation of the Soviet Union in order to prevent a surprise nuclear attack. U.S. President George H. Bush revived the idea in May 1989 to promote military transparency and regain the initiative on arms control from the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Three years later, twenty-six states signed the treaty, but due to the lengthy ratification process in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, it only entered into force in 2002.  

Since then, the state parties have conducted more than 1,500 overflights. Flight practice is very unequally distributed, however. Almost one-third of all flights go over Russia and Belarus, which form one group of states under the treaty, while NATO members have agreed not to inspect each other. Until it withdrew from the treaty, the United States conducted its overflights almost exclusively over Russia. Russia distributes its flights much more equally across all member states. In the past, just 12 percent of them were over the United States. Hence, in essence the treaty is all about Europe. It provides small- and medium-sized states without satellite capabilities some independence and data that would be otherwise beyond reach. Within the context of European security, it also serves as an opportunity to build military confidence through regular interaction with Russian officers. 

The United States and Russia have always had different motives for supporting the treaty. For Washington, the primary emphasis was on principled transparency and political leadership within the alliance. For Moscow, given its inferior satellite capabilities, data collection plays a larger role. For both states, however, the treaty signaled a path toward better political relations. Under the proclaimed new age of great power competition, this objective seems to be taking a back-seat role. Just like the U.S. withdrawal, the Russian announcement fits the trend toward less cooperative security. It is a snub to those in Europe who advocate arms control and confidence building as a means to reduce the risks of military escalation on the continent.

Ever since the U.S. withdrawal announcement, Russian diplomats had expressed concerns that European NATO members would continue to share imagery from flights over Russia with Washington. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even accused the United States of pressuring its allies to make flight data available and to deny the authorization of Russian flights over U.S. military installations in Europe in the future. Moscow wanted the treaty partners to provide written legal guarantees that confirm their commitments under the treaty and preclude such behavior. 

The other state parties reject these allegations and demands. They support the strengthening of data security in principle, but believe that Moscow is simply trying to take a cheap shot at Washington. Indeed, the entire Russian campaign seems to be motivated less by security imperatives than by concerns for equal political status with the United States. Playing up the difference within the Atlantic alliance is a welcome bonus. The legally binding written assurances from European states and Canada that Russia was demanding would do nothing to prevent illegal data proliferation or to reestablish trust between partners that the treaty does not already do. Besides, even if the United States was able to receive Open Skies images, the data would add little to what is already available from its reconnaissance satellites. Moscow could also easily expose those state parties who try to deny Russia flights over their territory. 

To be sure, European member states and Canada are not without blame, either. Although most of them have repeatedly stated their full support for the treaty, they did not take seriously Russia’s concerns or its willingness to act. Instead, they opted for a wait-and-see strategy, perhaps hoping for the United States to rejoin the treaty under President Biden or for Moscow to back down from its demands. This lack of decisiveness and political leadership prevented European states from speaking with one voice and developing creative solutions. They also seem to have been blindsided by Russia’s growing escalatory strategy. Meanwhile, Moscow was pushing forward. 

In November 2020, the Russian delegation in Vienna submitted a draft proposal to amend a decision by the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) on data security with the aim of explicitly precluding data transfers to nonmembers. The state parties agreed to consider the proposal and to proceed with discussions at the next ordinary meeting on January 25, 2021. Yet just before Christmas, the Russian Foreign Ministry distributed a diplomatic note with an unexpected ultimatum: by January 1, 2021, state parties should confirm in advance and in a legally binding form their agreement with the Russian draft decision and state their readiness to accept Russia’s earlier demands. Otherwise, Russia would initiate the withdrawal procedure from the treaty. 

After this stunt, diplomatic relations reached rock bottom. In a joint letter to Moscow on December 30, foreign ministers from sixteen state parties, including Germany and France, declined to accept the conditions. Other member states chose to respond in a similar manner bilaterally, while some declined to answer at all. At first, the ultimatum passed without consequences, but now, with the Russian withdrawal pending, Europe faces the result of its political inertia. 

Without Moscow’s participation, the treaty loses its rationale. Of course, NATO members could start conducting flights over each other’s territory or shift their flight quotas to non-NATO state parties, which include Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine. In both cases, however, the treaty would be reduced to a symbolic function. The membership of Belarus, meanwhile, is in question. Since Minsk possesses no aircraft dedicated to Open Skies, it is likely to side with Russia, especially since the political future of the embattled President Alexander Lukashenko depends increasingly on Moscow.

A third scenario is the return of the United States to the treaty. During his election campaign, Biden criticized the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw, but his legal options are limited. Although a majority in Congress supports treaty membership, the president lacks the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification in the Senate. Biden will also need to address several pressing issues that carry much more weight for the United States than Open Skies, including the possible extension of the New START treaty and the Iran nuclear program. Besides, Russia has repeatedly made clear that it would not accept any special procedures to ease a U.S. return. 

For Europe, the end of Open Skies would be another blow to the cooperative regional security order, following the Russian suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007 and the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. The European arms control architecture that developed at the end of the Cold War is crumbling. Ironically, Europe seems to have become less relevant rather than more so to its survival. In 2021, the strategic rivalry between the United States and Russia continues to overshadow security on the continent. The European attempt to save the Open Skies Treaty has been a litmus test for the popular rhetoric of effective multilateralism and strategic autonomy. The results are not encouraging. 

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

  • Alexander Graef