US Had Good Reason To Quit Open Skies Treaty – OpEd


By Luke Coffey*

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May formally gave the six-month advanced notification required for America’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. At the time, he said he did not believe that Russia was in compliance with the treaty, so there was no point in the US remaining bound by its terms. This warning was meant to give Moscow six months to change its ways. Since then, Russia has failed to change anything regarding its non-compliance, so this week the US kept its promise and duly left the treaty.

The Treaty on Open Skies, as it is officially known, was signed in 1992 during the early days of the new post-Cold War era. It did not come into force until 2002, at which time 27 countries in North America and Europe ratified it. The treaty is basically a confidence and security-building mechanism between all the signatories. It allows unarmed aerial observation flights over the territories of those nations that are party to the agreement to improve military transparency and build trust and confidence.

At the time of the treaty’s signing, Russia was a different country under a different type of leadership when compared to the situation today. During the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of optimism for cooperation between Russia and the West. Under Vladimir Putin’s regime, this no longer remains the case.

There are two good reasons why it was right for the US to leave the Open Skies Treaty. The first is actually quite simple and straightforward: The US should not remain in a treaty that Russia is constantly violating. There are three main areas of Russian non-compliance. The first is regarding the Republic of Georgia. Moscow has refused to allow observation flights within 10 km of its border with the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been under Russian military occupation since 2008.

This is because Russia recognizes these two regions as independent countries (it is one of only five nations to do so). According to Moscow’s logic, since these two “countries” are not formally part of the Open Skies Treaty, it cannot allow observation flights to take place near them. The second example of non-compliance regards the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Finally, Moscow has also placed limitations and restrictions on observation flights over its Kaliningrad exclave. In 2018, Russia refused a US observation flight during a major Russian military exercise even though such a flight was allowed under the terms of the treaty.

The second reason why the US was right to leave the treaty is more about ensuring taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely — especially during an economic crisis and a global pandemic. The two aircraft that the US Air Force uses for its observation missions are old and will need replacing soon. It is estimated that replacing these planes with newer ones could cost more than $200 million. This does not include the long-term cost of maintaining and operating the planes, which could cost many millions of dollars more.

It is reasonable to wonder if, in this era of fiscal austerity resulting from the economic impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the money needed to replace the older airplanes would be better spent elsewhere by the US military. This is especially true when considering that much of the same imagery produced by observation flights can be gathered by other means, such as satellites.

The decision to leave the treaty was not a knee-jerk reaction by the US. The Trump administration followed a very deliberate process that involved an inter-agency review for months ahead of its initial announcement back in May. The US also gave Russia a reasonable amount of time to come back into compliance with the terms of the treaty.

There was also wide consultation with allies in Europe. It is true that there is some concern among European countries surrounding America’s departure from the treaty, but the administration’s decision did not catch any of its allies by surprise in the same way the Obama administration did by abruptly announcing it was canceling part of the US’ missile defense program in Europe in 2009.

It is true that many of America’s allies benefited from the intelligence gathered from the observation flights that took place under the Open Skies Treaty. This is a legitimate concern now that the US has left the treaty. However, the US has stated that it would find other ways to share the same information with its partners, especially with the use of satellite imagery.

America’s departure from the Open Skies Treaty follows a Trump administration trend of withdrawing from treaties that Russia is not in compliance with. Moscow was also in violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Trump administration was right to leave that agreement last year. This makes sense. After all, there is no point in being limited or restricted by a treaty when others are not following the same rules.

Over the past several months, talks have taken place between US and Russian officials regarding a possible new arms control agreement on nuclear weapons. While nothing has materialized from these talks, the fact they have taken place shows that the idea of arms control has not been dismissed.

In the case of the Open Skies Treaty (and the INF Treaty), Russia did not abide by the rules. So one cannot blame the US for leaving these agreements. The blame lies with Russia.

  • Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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