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Russia quits the Open Skies treaty

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Jan 23rd 2021THERE ARE few opportunities left for Russian military officers and their NATO rivals to meet face-to-face and shoot the breeze. Soon there may be none. On January 15th Russia said that it would follow America in withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, a decades-old arms-control pact that allows unarmed surveillance flights over 33 countries.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.America left the treaty in November, complaining that Russia had imposed unacceptable restrictions on flights over Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave north of Poland, and had used its own flights over America to map out critical infrastructure (which is permitted). NATO allies were aghast, though publicly they sided with

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THERE ARE few opportunities left for Russian military officers and their NATO rivals to meet face-to-face and shoot the breeze. Soon there may be none. On January 15th Russia said that it would follow America in withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, a decades-old arms-control pact that allows unarmed surveillance flights over 33 countries.

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America left the treaty in November, complaining that Russia had imposed unacceptable restrictions on flights over Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave north of Poland, and had used its own flights over America to map out critical infrastructure (which is permitted). NATO allies were aghast, though publicly they sided with America.

America’s departure left Russia in an awkward position: it could no longer fly over American soil, yet America’s closest allies could still roam freely over Russia. Russian officials demanded guarantees that Europeans would neither restrict Russian flights over American bases in Europe nor pass imagery on to the Americans—both things that are not permitted by the treaty anyway.

European diplomats worried that acceding to such an ultimatum would risk setting a precedent whereby one country could hold a treaty to ransom. Russia’s demands were due to be discussed at a meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission on January 25th. Russia’s decision to pre-empt that gathering was a surprise.

Though Russia, like America, boasts advanced spy satellites that can do much the same job, in recent years it had invested more than any other treaty member in surveillance planes and advanced sensors. Russian military officers valued the treaty but “hardliners got the upper hand,” says Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg. “My personal view is the Russians wanted to send a message that they won’t be pushed around on arms control and NATO,” says Rose Gotemoeller, a former deputy secretary-general of NATO.

The treaty’s 32 remaining members may limp on. Poland, a NATO member, and Russia’s ally Belarus, for instance, have cause to keep an eye on military build-ups along their shared border. But with neither American nor Russian involvement, the treaty’s original rationale—to reassure Russia and the West that the other is not massing troops for war—will fizzle out.

For the moment, Russia’s membership hangs by a thread. To carry out its threat of withdrawal, Russia’s government would first have to write and pass a new law and then give six months’ notice to Canada and Hungary, the treaty’s depositories. In theory, that would allow time for President Joe Biden to re-sign the agreement. In practice, Russia would have to approve American re-entry amid disputes over Russia’s persecution of Alexei Navalny and cyber-intrusions against America. Congress is supportive of the treaty, says Mr Graef, but may impose awkward conditions for re-entry that are impossible for Russia to swallow.

In any case, Mr Biden’s priorities for arms control will be renewing the New START nuclear pact and reviving an ailing nuclear deal with Iran. With Russia’s suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in 2015, the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 and the looming threat to Open Skies, the diplomatic foundations of Europe’s post-cold-war security architecture look shaky.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Grounded"

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