Military observation flights between NATO countries and Russia have been an important trust-building practice since the end of the Cold War. The USA is no longer participating. And now everything depends on Russia.
The most important international agreement on military observation flights faces an uncertain future following the US withdrawal on Sunday. The continued existence of the Treaty on Open Skies now depends on Russia – if nuclear power were to withdraw it would be invalid. That is why the focus is not least on the winner of the US presidential election, the Democrats Joe Biden, the Donald Trump to replace on January 20 in the White House – and defended the agreement.
The contract was signed in 1992 and came into force in 2002. It allows the contracting states to conduct a certain number of agreed observation flights over the territory of other states each year.
The Trump administration announced at the end of May that the United States would withdraw from the agreement. The execution was now declared on Sunday. Washington cites violations of Moscow’s treaty as the reason for the move. The announcement of the US exit had already caused irritation and concern internationally, because the agreement is one of the pillars of the confidence-building measures between NATO countries and Russia.
Russia sets conditions for remaining in agreements
The US had not even explained why it was withdrawing from the contract, complained the Kremlin chief Wladimir Putin at a panel of experts in October. The NATO states could continue to fly over Russian territory and hand over all information to the Americans. Russia, on the other hand, should no longer receive any US information, said Putin. “Let’s talk honestly!” He offered.
Later hired foreign minister Sergey Lavrov Conditions for this should Russia remain in the agreement. On November 12, he demanded a written commitment from the NATO states not to pass any more data on to the USA after observation flights over Russia. And he warned the contracting parties against responding to US demands not to allow Russian observation flights over American military bases in Europe.
“This is a gross violation of the treaty,” Lavrov said. The possibility of observing US activities in Poland or Germany, for example, is considered attractive for Russia, which is why the country remains in the agreement despite massive concerns – at least for the time being.
Maas regretted the exit
Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas regretted America’s exit from the agreement. Germany continues to regard it as an important part of arms control, which contributes to building confidence and thus more security in the northern hemisphere “from Vladivostok to Vancouver”, said the SPD politician. The federal government will therefore continue to implement the contract.
At the NATO headquarters in Brussels, however, understanding for the US step was expressed. “Russia has been imposing flight restrictions in breach of contract for many years,” said a spokeswoman on Sunday at the request of the German press agency. The continued selective implementation of the treaty obligations by Russia has undermined the contribution of the important agreement to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.
According to the agreement, the USA and Russia could each make up to 42 reconnaissance flights a year. There have been more than 1500 control flights so far. In addition to most of the NATO countries and Russia, Ukraine and Georgia have also signed the treaty, for example.
Control flights should build trust between states
After long years of the Cold War, the control flights were primarily intended to ensure transparency and confidence-building. Russia could see from the air how military bases are developing in Europe and the United States. The other way around, the Americans and their NATO partners were allowed to fly into Russian airspace for observation.
The disputes with Moscow were viewed by US security experts as an advanced argument when Washington made the announcement. It was suspected that Trump would rather not be bound by any international agreements than those that are complicated or do not correspond 100 percent to his interests. The US has already abandoned numerous international agreements under the Republican. Among other things, they withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris climate agreement and the INF contract on the ban on land-based medium-range nuclear weapons.
Election winner Biden wants to revise this course. If the Open Skies Treaty can be upheld in the next two months, the Democrat could consider a return maneuver – and thus send a strong signal to the NATO partners after four years of Trump. “Without us, the contract could fall apart,” warned Biden after the Trump administration’s resignation in May.
The allies had made it clear that they wanted the US to remain in the treaty. “Exit will exacerbate growing tensions between the West and Russia and increase the risk of misjudgment and conflict,” he said.
Biden would need majorities in the US Congress
According to the US think tank Brookings, Biden would have to get majorities in the US Congress to return. The Russian political scientist Dmitri Susslow considers this to be “practically impossible” in view of the balance of power in Washington. “Biden will not be returning to the INF or the Open Skies contract,” he says. Nevertheless, Russia is hoping for Biden.
After the Open Skies exit, a major setback in arms control could still be imminent: The future of the last major nuclear disarmament treaty, New Start, is still pending. The contract will expire at the beginning of February 2021 if Russia and the US do not agree on an extension. Russia has repeatedly called for this – without any tangible result so far.
The New Start Treaty limits the nuclear arsenals of both countries to 800 carrier systems each and 1,550 operational nuclear warheads each. In the past, Biden had spoken out in favor of extending the contract. However, after his inauguration on January 20, he has little time for this. Should the agreement expire, there would be no agreement for the first time in decades that would address the existing strategic Nuclear weapons Sets limits.