Russia has given official notice that it will leave the Treaty on Open Skies in six months, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Friday 18 June. The decision follows the U.S. withdrawal last year, reaffirmed by President Biden upon taking office, which Moscow claims “significantly upset the balance of interests” among the pact’s members. The treaty, which came into force in 2002, allows signatories to conduct short-notice, unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of other participants.
More than 1,500 flights have taken place under the agreement. It intends to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by allowing states to directly gather information on relevant military activities. Russia’s official notification, which triggered the six-month withdrawal period, was first signaled in January after it unsuccessfully sought guarantees from NATO allies that they wouldn’t share data gained through the treaty with the U.S.
NATO and its member states reacted with disappointment to the announcement, with the organisation saying it “deeply regret[s]” the decision. At the same time, it was noted that Russia had long failed to fully comply with its obligations under the treaty by, inter alia, restricting flights over Kaliningrad and near its border with Georgia. As the U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted, “Russia has failed to engage constructively on the Treaty and has not returned to full compliance.” In response to these allegations, Russia has pointed to more sweeping, U.S. imposed restrictions over Alaska.
The value of Open Skies, and therefore what is to be mourned, derives more from human interaction than hard data. Satellite systems are becoming increasingly common and capable, allowing states to observe others without the formalities of the treaty. In today’s world, aircraft imagery is not significantly better than that of satellites, while the cost of maintaining these aircraft is prohibitive – only the U.S. and Russia consistently did so.
It was partly the cost of investing in new technology, relative to its utility, which dissuaded the U.S. Defence Department from remaining committed to the treaty. On the other hand, the lasting inter-military relationships that have developed through Open Skies interactions cannot be substituted by emerging technology. According to Section III of the treaty, inspectors from the observing country will be accompanied by at least two monitors from the country being observed. The two parties must also agree on mission plans and other details. This transparency bred healthy relationships between militaries who were otherwise mutually suspicious. Now that these opportunities for interaction have been withdrawn, the military confidence and predictability they fostered will likely follow suit.
The idea of agreed reconnaissance flights over adversaries’ territory was first proposed by President Eisenhower in 1955, though it was rejected by his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev. It was revived in 1990 by President Bush as a way to build confidence between NATO countries and Warsaw Pact countries as the world emerged from the Cold War. Signed in 1992, and force by 2002, the Treaty on Open Skies, therefore, gave life to an idea nearly half a century old.
Another twenty years on, it is perhaps possible that the issues and mechanisms it deals with are outdated on a technological level – and nor is there the imminent threat of nuclear war that loomed menacingly over much of the latter Twentieth Century. However, the issue of trust is as pertinent as ever. The recent withdrawals of Russia and the U.S. – and the rhetoric surrounding them – fit worryingly into a greater context of lapsing treaties and narrowing channels of international cooperation.
Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is neither unexpected nor inexplicable, though it is disheartening. It heralds the passing of two eras: one of aerial surveillance technology and one of willing transparency. The latter is a much graver loss. Even if these states no longer find benefit in surveillance flights, they should seek another mechanism to signal their open disposition. As Eisenhower and Bush recognized previously, commitments to transparency hold the power to transform relations. We must hope that reneging on such commitments does not do so harmfully.