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Open Skies Treaty: The US should not have withdrawn, for five reasons

  Harini Madhusudan

What next to the Open Skies treaty? And would the withdrawal at this juncture,  complicate Joe Biden’s options if he seeks to re-join the treaty?

On 22 November, the US announced its withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty; earlier in May 2020, it had notified the member countries the intent to withdraw. For the US, Russia's non-compliance with the treaty obligations is the primary reason; hence, the Trump administration feels that the withdrawal, would make the US more secure. The announcement is accompanied by a move to discard the observation planes. 

What next to the Open Skies treaty? Furthermore, would the withdrawal at this juncture,  complicate Joe Biden's options if he seeks to re-join the treaty?

Trump, Open Skies Treaty and Biden
While the Open Skies agreement has been a key part of the arms control treaties, multiple complains of non-compliance have been made by both the US and Russia over the past decade.  For President Trump, arms control and non-proliferation have been of little value. The decisions were taken in-line with the 'America First' Policy.  The immediate reason for his decision to withdraw came after a Russian reconnaissance plane flew over his golf course in New Jersey, New York in 2017. During the press conference in May, the US stated that they would rethink the decision to withdraw if Russia "demonstrates a return to full compliance." The timing of the exit and its unilateral nature should be seen in the context of the US commitment to its NATO allies and the erratic decision-making by President Trump. 

However, the formal withdrawal comes after the US elections. In May 2020, Joe Biden expressed that the withdrawal would be counter-productive; according to him, it is important to resolve the issues of compliance through the treaty's implementation and dispute mechanism. As a Senator, Joe Biden is said to have endorsed the treaty; he also believes that the treaty could crumble without the US presence. The Open Skies treaty was used extensively to support Ukraine when Russia violated its territory during the Obama administration. Joe Biden is expected to re-join the treaty when he takes office. 

With one foot outside the White House, this is an attempt by the Trump administration in line with his "America First" approach to foreign policy matters. In recent weeks, there have been important policy decisions taken by the Trump administration on Iran, Israel, China. These decisions have drawn significant attention casting doubts against the intentions behind such decisions. 

Balance sheet: Five reasons why the US should not have withdrawn from the Open Skies treaty
First, the future of Arms Control mechanisms. Following the formal exit from the Open Skies treaty, the START is the only remaining arms control treaty between the US and Russia. This should be a cause of concern for international security. During his term, the JCPOA, and INF treaties have taken a blow in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and Open Skies in 2020. The US, under Trump administration, has been seen as a 'serial killer,' of arms control. 

Second, advanced technologies and satellites. The US is known for its advanced spy satellite technology that is capable of gathering far better and valuable intelligence. Russia does not have the same technology, making it more reliant on the treaty. The withdrawal would not necessarily halt the US reconnaissance. The US would no longer have to notify the countries of their activities. 

Third, the strategic value of the treaty. The areas covered under the treaty are less likely to be facilities of confidentiality and high strategic value. Due to the rapid growth in technology, the treaty is largely symbolic. The possibility of countries using camouflage and other tactics to divert attention had been around for a while, expanding the mistrust; a move that would necessarily worsen than boost transparency and confidence among members. With the new clause for the members who are US allies to not share data with the US would put them in an awkward position against their commitments to the treaty and in their relations. 

Fourth, regional security and strengthening confidence. The long term implications of the US decision would be a step down for their credibility as a reliable security partner, and in-general would slow down the global efforts at arms control, creating a sense of mistrust and sending a dangerous signal for power competition. The treaty remains a symbol of strengthening confidence among the members in the region, one of the reasons why the Trump administration should have respected the views of the members than take a unanimous decision. 

Fifth, the decision to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty not only risks souring relations with Russia but increase the divide between the US and its European allies. Many in Europe would expect the US to remain in the treaty despite the latter's complaints against Russia. One can observe a complete disregard for the 33 other members who are part to the treaty, as the US rushed the withdrawal without calling for negotiations of any form, undermining the strategic value of the treaty as a whole. The exit of the US from the Open Skies Treaty, leaves the other members in a fix. The NATO allies continue to support the treaty, focusing on enhancing European security as a priority. The future of the treaty would trickle down on the decision of Russia to remain. The decreased value of the treaty could be the reason for its collapse. 

The View from Russia
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded on 22 November with a statement saying the US bases in Europe would not be exempt from the surveillance missions of Russia. Russia has sought firm guarantees from the states remaining in the treaty, to fulfil their obligations. The statement read, "We will seek firm guarantees that the states remaining in the Treaty on Open Skies will fulfil their obligations, firstly, on ensuring the possibility of observing their entire territory and, secondly, on ensuring that the materials of observation flights will not be transferred to third countries that are not participants of the treaty," and warned against the US attempts at obtaining observation data from the members who are US allies. 

Open Skies Treaty: A Brief Background
The Open Skies Treaty was signed in 1992 and came to effect in the year 2002. Ever since there were 1500 open skies flights conducted, till 2019. The treaty allows 35 state parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over each other's entire territories for data on military activities, a move aimed at confidence-building and "mutual aerial observations," among the members.  The US and Russia have announced a few limits over their territories including Hawaii, Kaliningrad, and Ukraine. 

Often, the US and Russia blamed each other for non-compliance of the terms of the treaty. While the violations are being seen as problematic, they have never constituted to be a material breach of the terms of the treaty. 

The members who have signed the treaty include the following:

North America: Canada, United States. 

Europe: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark (Including Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. 

Cyprus has submitted its application but is being blocked by Turkey and Kyrgyzstan has signed the treaty but not ratified it.

About the author

Harini Madhusudan is a PhD scholar at the Science Diplomacy Programme, in School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). Her research interests include Outer Space, China and East Asia, US-China, and political economics. Currently, she is pursuing PhD on, "Militarisation in Outer Space: a case study of India, Japan, and France."

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