Want to Avoid U.S.-Russian Conflict? Keep the Lines Open

Trump’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty hurts the United States most.

Russian Helicopters
Russian Kamov Ka-52 "Alligator" attack helicopters fly over the Kremlin and Red Square in downtown Moscow on May 9 to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

With little fanfare, U.S. President Donald Trump last month delivered another dangerous blow to keeping international peace when he announced the United States would leave the Open Skies Treaty (OST).

The agreement—signed in 1992—allows mutual reconnaissance flights over the territories of 34 states. It was designed to allow countries to monitor military activities from the sky and thereby build confidence that neither side is preparing for war or for a surprise attack. So far, more than 1,500 unarmed surveillance flights have been conducted under the treaty since it went into effect in 2002. Trump pulled out citing Russian nonadherence, and the exit goes into effect in six months, barring an unlikely about-face.

Trump and his team argue that Russian violations undermine the treaty’s goals of transparency, cooperation, and trust-building, and they believe that there must be consequences for noncompliance. The United States also believes that Russia is using OST flights to collect sensitive information about civilian infrastructure in the United States. (The counterargument here is that OST images cannot detect anything that is not already available from satellites.)

But in reality, the United States will suffer the most—losing out on a critical way of keeping open communication channels with Moscow. The impacts will be felt outside U.S. borders, too. Withdrawing from the treaty further erodes the conventional arms control regime and significantly increases the risks of conflict in Europe and beyond.

By withdrawing from the OST, the United States weakens the last functioning pillar of the conventional arms control architecture. The treaty is the final element of a carefully crafted framework that has helped maintain peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area since the end of the Cold War. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower first put forward the idea of an Open Skies Treaty in 1955, but it only materialized later, when President George H.W. Bush took advantage of easing tensions between East and West and initiated a negotiation process that led to the signing of the treaty. The two other main international documents of the post-Cold War era are the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) and the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures—which established limits on conventional weapons and provided for military transparency measures, respectively. Both, however, have been undermined in recent years. Russia suspended its participation in the CFE Treaty in 2007, after other state parties refused to let the adapted CFE Treaty enter into force. And the Vienna Document is outdated because Moscow is resisting its modernization.

In addition, the U.S. withdrawal from the OST will most likely have negative effects on possible negotiations to prolong New START, the last remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement that expires in February 2021. At the beginning of June, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that “the negotiations on that crucial issue, important not just for us but for the entire world, have failed to start.”

As other treaties have diminished in force, the OST has become increasingly critical. It now represents one of the very few remaining opportunities for military-to-military contacts between Washington and Moscow. This is crucial because other communication channels between the militaries have run dry in recent years, particularly since the 2014 Ukraine conflict.

In truth, the OST should be considered less of an intelligence-gathering tool for the United States and more of a trust-building instrument—particularly with Russia. Dialogue between the militaries is fundamental to the OST: During surveillance flights, military officers from both the observing state and the observed state sit together in one aircraft, sometimes joined by several other officers from other countries. This builds crucial personal relationships, helping to avoid military misunderstandings.

One of the key advantages of images taken during Open Skies flights is that they can be shared with all signatories of the treaty, unlike secretly collected intelligence data that states usually want to protect. European diplomats in Vienna who are familiar with the topic told Foreign Policy that it is much easier to act diplomatically (and politically) on images taken during Open Skies flights than on secretly collected data, as OST images cannot be discarded as fake or unreliable. (Every Open Skies aircraft and its cameras are examined by experts from treaty members as part of a strict certification process.)

Questions that arise as a result of the OST images—for example, those showing Russian military infrastructure being built along NATO’s borders—can be raised within the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC), the treaty’s implementing body, which meets on a monthly basis at the headquarters of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. This is also the place where states can clear up any misunderstandings, avoiding military tensions and conflict. This is particularly useful in times of crisis, for example in 2014 when OST flights showed Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders.

Indeed, according to diplomatic sources in Vienna, the Russian treaty violations have also been discussed in the OSCC in Vienna. In previous years, violations related, for example, to Russian flight restrictions over Chechnya were solved there successfully.

The current Russian treaty violations relate mainly to Moscow blocking Open Skies flights over the highly militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, where Moscow has imposed a flight length restriction of 500 kilometers (311 miles), citing safety concerns for other civilian aircraft in the area. Russia has also blocked flights within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) zone along its border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While these regions are considered to be within the borders of Georgia, Moscow sees them as independent states and therefore not parties to the treaty. Russia in the past also banned flights over major Russian military exercises. The United States, in turn, blocked requests to fly over certain military facilities in Alaska and Hawaii and closed down airfields for overnight stops.

In Vienna, European diplomats said they agreed with Trump that the Russian violations undermined the treaty’s goals of cooperation and transparency. But they had hopes that the frictions could eventually have been resolved on a diplomatic level within the OSCC and other formats.

Even James Gilmore, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, noted some progress in early March when he said Moscow was apparently ready to allow overflights of military exercises and conceded that even one of the recent OST flights near Kaliningrad was very “cooperative.”

Yet, with the announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in six months from now, the chances for a diplomatic solution are now coming “close to zero,” as one diplomat put it, given a further hardening of positions in Moscow and Washington.

The U.S. withdrawal doesn’t just undermine Washington’s ability to negotiate with Moscow. It risks driving a wedge between NATO allies and could ultimately undermine unity. In the long run, this will play into Russia’s hands. European NATO states, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, highly value the treaty not only as a confidence-building tool but also as an intelligence-gathering tool because they do not possess the same kinds of sophisticated intelligence sources as the United States. For instance, European NATO states want to monitor Russian troop movements along their borders, something that is of particular importance to the Baltic nations. The data helps them identify deployment of military equipment and provides an early warning of troop movements.

What are the options of the remaining state parties? So far, no other nations have indicated any intention to leave the treaty. Late last month, 11 states took aim at the U.S. withdrawal and stressed their intention to continue engaging Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on May 26 that Russia would “analyze the situation in an even-handed manner based primarily on our national interests and the interests of our allies.” For Europe and Canada, Russia’s continued membership is crucial since most of their flights take place over Russian territory, as research by the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg shows.

In turn, Russia—even if it loses the ability to fly over the United States—would still retain the right to fly over European states and Canada, which together account for more than 87 percent of its flights. Moscow has also invested financially in new Open Skies planes and will want to make use of them.

The remaining state parties will decide how to proceed at a conference that has to take place within the next 60 days. Keeping the treaty alive is in their shared interest as it constitutes the last viable multilateral option of avoiding conflict and military tensions between Russia and the West—even without U.S. participation.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria.