Open Skies: Trump’s next big blunder?

Partisan argument in Washington is helping undermine the Open Skies Treaty. The US could lose one of the most useful instruments in its relations with Russia.

Image by Airwolfhound

Rumours that Donald Trump intends to leave the Open Skies Treaty have become so numerous over the past month that it feels like an open secret. European countries have rushed to the treaty’s defence. As with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, legitimate US concerns about Russian behaviour have become subject to the usual polarised partisan domestic debate in the United States. Withdrawing from the treaty – as former US National Security Adviser John Bolton recommended while he was in post – will only make things worse.

The 1992 Treaty on Open Skies, to use its formal title, allows each signatory state to fly a certain amount of photographic reconnaissance flights over other signatory states’ territory. But there is heavy protocol involved: flights have to be announced at least three days in advance and routes at least one day in advance. The plane needs to land in the recipient country first to allow for inspections and to take personnel on board who monitor adherence to the protocolled flight path. The prescribed maximal resolution of 30cm for photographic cameras, and 50cm for radar and infrared sensors, guarantees that the pictures are not suited for detailed intelligence on equipment or installations, but serve as the confidence-building measure they are intended to be. For example, one can see whether there are tanks present in an area, but not identify technical details of the tanks. Pictures taken need to be shared with the inspected country, or with any other signatory state that requests to see them. Each country therefore knows what information the other party has gathered.

Russia tries to undermine these confidence-building measures wherever possible: it restricts flights over Kaliningrad to 500km; and it uses its own interpretation of political geography on Crimea, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia to block overflights in the North Caucasus and around Crimea – both regions where confidence-building measures on Russian military build-up would be necessary. Russia also invites its allies from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to fly over remote areas of its territory in order to quickly use up the Russian “passive quota” (the maximum amount of flights Russia has to allow over its territory). This obstructive behaviour degrades the usefulness of the treaty and contradicts its spirit.

While these concerns are legitimate, the debate is not assisted by the way in which it gets sucked into the partisan foreign policy debate in Washington: Republicans attacking the treaty, Democrats defending it. This polarising debate also blurs facts with fiction. US critics describe the aircraft as “spy-planes”, which they are not. In fact, Russian military satellites have a higher resolution. Opponents also put it about that the Russian planes use cameras with a higher resolution than allowed, contain other reconnaissance equipment, or take additional photos in the transit flights. But, if this was the case, such grave violations of the treaty could be easily verified by the US authorities protocolling and accompanying the flights.

Because the US and Russia both have high-resolution reconnaissance satellites, neither would lose much from cancelling the treaty; the losing side would be Europe. Most European nations do not possess reconnaissance satellites, and Open Skies pictures are the only primary source photographic evidence they obtain of troop deployments, manoeuvres, and military sites in Russia. In addition – and importantly – Western countries tend to send Open Skies planes in to Russia on occasions where, for example, Russian forces conduct snap exercises or are deployed close to Ukraine to intimidate it (or to cross the border).The Vienna Document on confidence-building measures does not provide for inspections or other transparency- and confidence-building measures for these manoeuvres, and so the Open Skies flights are the only instruments to formally address them.

If Open Skies came to an end, the real losing side would be Europe

Intelligence sharing in NATO is not a sufficient substitute. Firstly, this is because intelligence is traded rather than shared, making it difficult to access for smaller states. Secondly, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by “intelligence” on secret Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, no European government now would dare make a political decision solely based on US intelligence. And, thirdly, as Open Skies pictures are accessible to all signatory states, they do not unmask one’s own intelligence sources or capabilities. If a crisis arises, they are available to help make a public case.

Even so, photographic evidence is only half the story, as Open Skies flights are used for signalling purposes as well: other intelligence means may reveal the conduct of Russian snap exercises or activity close to the Ukrainian border, but it is Open Skies that enables treaty parties to immediately request an observation flight to the territory where Moscow is conducting these exercises. This serves as a signal: “We see what you’re doing, and we’ll hold you responsible for it.” But, while Washington is right to criticise Moscow’s obstructive behaviour over Open Skies, it has not articulated any plan or initiative for replacing the treaty when it comes to signalling and verification around such deployments. If the US withdrew from the treaty, Russia would promptly follow suit. Thereafter, the US allies would find it much more difficult to openly address dangerous Russian manoeuvres and deployments.

Some US experts have proposed a commonly shared satellite service to replace the treaty’s confidence-building function. Space travel costs have decreased dramatically in the past decade, and the resolution offered by Open Skies planes can now be offered by relatively cheap commercial off-the-shelf satellites. Satellites could hardly be obstructed in their overflights and, if the photographs were available on request to any party to new arrangements, they would provide similar sets of evidence.

But right now there is neither a treaty nor a programme in place that could replace the Open Skies Treaty. Bringing it to an end before a successor agreement is ready would be a great diplomatic blunder. Satellites could not replace the treaty’s signalling role, as it would not be made known to the Russians that they are being observed. Significantly amending and improving the Vienna Document could achieve this aim, but this would require a parallel push which is not yet even under way. In the absence of such an effort from the US, abandoning the Open Skies Treaty will only add to Washington’s reputation for strategic ignorance and reduce the options available to it as it manages its relations with Russia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.