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Russia is playing with the Open Skies Treaty

The violation of the Treaty on Open Skies is just yet another example of the Russian attitude to international arms control treaties.

February 11, 2021 - Maksym Skrypchenko - Articles and Commentary

Tupolev Tu-134AK. Photo: Dmitry Terekhov flickr.com

In mid-January, Russian authorities declared their intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. This agreement allows parties to observe other participating actors’ territory from the air as a confidence-building measure. Earlier, in November 2020, numerous violations of this treaty by Russia pushed the United States to withdraw from the agreement. As a result, Moscow, which had continuously challenged the extent of the treaty’s power, immediately announced its own withdrawal.

In recent years, Russia has increasingly violated major international treaties related to arms control. This began with the Kremlin’s unjustified decision to suspend its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Arms in Europe in 2015, which marked Russia’s growing desire to pursue hybrid warfare across the continent. This was soon followed by the INF Treaty, perhaps the most important international deal of the late 1980s. The agreement was ended due to Russia’s continued development of weapons banned by the treaty. The current START Treaty (valid until February 5th 2021) could suffer the same fate as the INF Treaty if Moscow refuses to create an effective mechanism for monitoring and verifying its nuclear arsenal. Such a mechanism would make it practically impossible for the Kremlin to conceal any secret projects. In the wake of such moves by Russia, the future of the Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna Document was soon in doubt. It did not take long before Moscow announced its withdrawal from Open Skies in January 2021.

Whilst Russia could have easily withdrawn from any treaty deemed unfavourable in the past, it is clear that times have changed. After the unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Arms in Europe, the Kremlin faced a wave of criticism from the international community. At the same time, Russia’s suspension of the agreement only further exposed its aggressive policy towards Europe. This was made clear by the country’s continuing military incursion in Eastern Ukraine. Having learned lessons from 2015, the Putin administration adopted a new strategy of simply provoking other treaty states. Now aware that the West will continue to implement and observe international agreements in a responsible manner, Russia simply breaches treaty rules without actually withdrawing. In simple terms, the Kremlin hopes that the United States and Europe will simply end agreements due to its constant treaty violations. This strategy successfully derailed the Open Skies Treaty, as the Kremlin forced the White House to withdraw from the deal. This was soon followed by Russia’s own withdrawal from the treaty. The Russians do not wish for a repeat of 2015. After all, today such a stunt could lead to more sanctions targeting the country.

Overall, Russia has continued to challenge regional trust and security through its attacks on the basic principles of the Treaty on Open Skies and the Vienna Document (both are similar in nature and created under OSCE auspices). Washington’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty was a response to Russia’s ongoing violations of the agreement. As a result, America simply did not wish to cooperate with Moscow any longer in the areas laid out in the treaty. Meanwhile, Russia has exploited certain clauses of the agreement for its own ends. The Russian army quite often used surveillance flights to aim high-precision weapons at strategically important American and European targets. Despite this, the Russians never allowed other participating states to conduct observation flights over Kaliningrad or the ten kilometre corridor along the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the case of the breakaway regions, this refusal was an attempt to conceal the reality that these self-proclaimed republics are dependent on Russia. Instead of using the treaty to build trust between countries, the Russians have turned it into a tool of intimidation. The viability of the Vienna Document is now also under threat. According to international inspection reports, Russia has been submitting false statistics regarding the size and strength of its armed forces. Due to Russia’s actions, the Vienna Document is likely to be revised as early as this year.

The 2020 United States presidential election has changed the country’s foreign policy direction in terms of arms control. The Democratic Party is well known for its support of multilateral treaties such as Open Skies. This contrasts with former President Donald Trump’s tendency to withdraw from any agreement deemed ‘ineffective’. It is likely that opposition from Republican senators will prevent the Biden administration from gaining the necessary support to ratify the treaty once again. However, some lawyers argue that it may be possible to circumvent this problem. The biggest question is whether it is really necessary to resurrect the deal. Does it make any sense to return to a treaty that is not going to work?

It would be much easier to ensure military transparency and implement confidence-building measures if one of Open Skies’ most influential parties respected its provisions. Despite this, it seems that Russia does not wish to be a responsible country that rejects war and aggression as an inherent part of its foreign policy. The first step for Moscow is to get rid of Putin’s legacy. Sanctions and isolation might be a signal that the Kremlin is ready to cooperate with the international community by reintroducing various treaties.

Maksym Skrypchenko is a co-founder of Ukrainian Translatlantic Platform and a Deputy Director of Security Initiative Center residing in Kyiv. His main areas of expertise are conflictology, Eastern Europe, Ukraine-EU and Ukraine-NATO relations.


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