By Lan Ying
The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement on December 18 announcing the country’s official exit from the Treaty on Open Skies, a step it said it was forced to take, adding that the US should bear all responsibilities for the situation today as it unilaterally jeopardized the treaty earlier with the aim of stirring up an “arms race”.
Signed in 1992 and taking effect in 2002, the Treaty on Open Skies was signed by 34 countries successively. According to the treaty, contracting countries can conduct non-armed air reconnaissance on each other’s territory to check their performance of international arms control treaties, and the airplane carrying out such reconnaissance can be fitted with cameras and radars but not weapons. The treaty was an important trust-building measure between Russia and most NATO countries after the end of the Cold War.
However, the US began to see it as a shackle on its military forces as the country shifted its strategic focus. In May 2020, the then US President Donald Trump accused Russia of violating the treaty, and the US Department of State notified the other contracting parties of its decision to withdraw immediately, which became official on November 22 that year. This gave Russia no other option but to pull back from the treaty as well.
In fact, forebodings of the treaty’s termination have appeared in recent years. In particular, America’s self-contradiction and groundless accusations have led to plenty of divergences on the equipment, route and timing of reconnaissance, making the implementation of the treaty extremely difficult.
On the one hand, the US has set numerous obstacles for Russia’s flights in recent years. In 2016, it refused to provide enough intermediate airports for Russian surveillance aircraft. In 2017, it canceled the night rest stations for crews at Robins air force base and Ellsworth air force base. In 2018, the US military persistently denied access to Russia’s Tu-214 reconnaissance aircraft because the new electro-optical cameras onboard allegedly didn’t conform to rules.
Moreover, the US Department of State listed treaty violations by the Russia side in its statement. It claimed that Russia restricted observation flights over Kaliningrad, Moscow, and the 10km radius around the border regions between Russia and Georgia’s South Ossetia and between Russia and Abkhazia; Russia designated the airport in Crimea for refueling as a sign of its sovereignty over Crimea; and Russia in 2019 refused America and Canada’s request to conduct an observation flight over Russian military’s “Tsentr 2019” strategic exercise.
On the other hand, the US and Russia are not on an equal footing in observation flights. Statistics show that the US had conducted three times more observation flights over Russia than the other way round – America 196 times in Russian airspace and Russia 71 times in American airspace from 2002 to 2016.
The exit by the US and Russia from the Treaty on Open Skies exerts the greatest impacts on European countries as the treaty is not only a measure to build trust and reduce the risk of conflicts, but also a symbol of building a new Europe through intensified cooperation. Therefore, what America’s act of “tearing up treaties and pulling out of organizations” hurts first and most is the confidence in the security of NATO’s European members.
The termination of the treaty that started with America’s uncalled-for breach and backing out mirrors America’s mounting unilateral tendency. For a long time, the US has been stubbornly clinging to the Cold War mentality, upholding the “America first” policy, and retreating from one international organization after another. Its recklessness and arbitrariness have taken a serious toll on the international arms control and disarmament process.
Editor's note: This article is originally published on zqb.cyol.com, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.