Treaty on Open Skies
TOPIC: General Studies 2
- International Laws
In News: Russia and the other members of the Treaty on Open Skies held a videoconference meeting to discuss the framework’s future following America’s announcement in late May that it plans to withdraw from the agreement.
Background: A 34-member accord, the Treaty on Open Skies allows member states to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories under certain controlled conditions in order to reduce the likelihood of a war by miscalculation. The U.S.’ withdrawal raised concern that the global security architecture will continue to collapse.
The Treaty on Open Skies
First proposed in 1955 by former US President Dwight Eisenhower as a means to deescalate tensions during the Cold War, the landmark treaty was eventually signed in 1992 between NATO members and former Warsaw Pact countries following the demise of the Soviet Union. It went into effect in 2002 and currently has 35 signatories along with one non-ratifying member (Kyrgyzstan).
The OST aims at building confidence among members through mutual openness, thus reducing the chances of accidental war. Under the treaty, a member state can “spy” on any part of the host nation, with the latter’s consent. A country can undertake aerial imaging over the host state after giving notice 72 hours before, and sharing its exact flight path 24 hours before.
The information gathered, such as on troop movements, military exercises and missile deployments, has to be shared with all member states. Only approved imaging equipment is permitted on the surveillance flights, and officials from the host state can also stay on board throughout the planned journey.
Significance of the Open Skies Treaty
- The OST was signed in 1992, much before the advent of advanced satellite imaging technology which is currently the preferred mode for intelligence gathering. Surveillance aircraft provide key information that still cannot be gathered by satellite sensors, such as thermal imaging data.
- Also, since only the US has an extensive military satellite infrastructure, other NATO members would have to rely on Washington to obtain classified satellite data, which would be more difficult to obtain compared to OST surveillance records that have to be shared with all members as a treaty obligation.
The treaty was designed to enhance mutual understanding, build confidence, and promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.
While it was envisaged as a key arms control agreement, many in Washington had for over a decade accused Russia of non-compliance with OST protocols, blaming Moscow of obstructing surveillance flights on its territory, while misusing its own missions for gathering key tactical data.
As per a report in The New York Times, President Trump was also unhappy that a Russian reconnaissance flew over his golf course in New Jersey state in 2017. His administration has now chosen to withdraw from the pact, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing Russia of “flagrantly and continuously violating) the Treaty in various ways for years.” Russia has denied the allegations, and has called Washington’s exit as “very regrettable”.
The impact therefore…
US would reconsider its decision to withdraw if Russia “demonstrates a return to full compliance”. This approach is reminiscent from last year when Trump had suspended US participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty– another security agreement that had been credited with curtailing the arms race in Europe towards the end of the Cold War. Then too, the US had said that it would re-engage with Russia if it sought a new treaty– a possibility that never materialised. Experts believe that the same could happen with the OST, with Russia using Washington’s exit as a pretext for leaving the treaty itself.
Russia’s departure could adversely impact Washington’s European allies, which rely on OST data to track Russian troop movements in the Baltic region. Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to Putin.
The OST exit is only the most recent example in the list of important pacts that Washington has stepped away from during the Trump presidency, such as the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Experts are now contemplating the fate of the much larger US-Russia ‘New START’ nuclear arms control agreement, which is slated to expire in February 2021. Trump has already said that his administration would not renew the treaty unless China joins. Many see this as improbable, given the already heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic.
- The COVID-19 outbreak highlights the imperative to work with other countries to address global challenges. Instead of leading that global effort, the United States is finding ways to anger its partners and multilateral organizations, which will be essential for tackling new challenges (like climate change) and old ones (like nuclear proliferation). It takes a lot less time to destroy an agreement than it takes to negotiate and conclude one — particularly arms control agreements, which often take months or years.
- A treaty reflects the compromises and concessions made by all parties, including the United States. Arms control and disarmament treaties are an investment (political as well as often financial) by the entire government, and represent the positions of various departments as well as non-governmental entities. Withdrawing from treaties, like the Trump administration is doing with the OST, should only be done after careful discussions and consideration across the U.S. government, with their allies, and with relevant voices outside government.
Connecting the Dots:
- Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to Putin. Discuss.