What Russia’s exit after the United States means for the Open Skies Treaty?

Walking the map through the footprints of the United States, Russia has also left the open skies treaty, an accord between over 30 countries that allows participants to fly unarmed reconnaissance flights over any part of their fellow member states. It was in last November when the United States under the presidentship of Mr Donald Trump withdrew its assent from the Open Skies Treaty as it accused Russia of violating the terms and conditions of the pact. These allegations have been denied by the Russian authorities. Falling the same route again, Russia has now turned the tables around by levying the entire violation blame on Washington, forcing the country to take up a decision to leave the treaty.
These developments by two of the most prominent global powers- the US and Russia, have instilled the remarks of worry and trouble hanging over the heads of experts. The increasing mistrust between the two parties can potentially turn out to not be in global favour.
What is the Open Skies Treaty or OST?
The idea of an open Skies treaty was first given birth by Dwight Eisenhower, former president of the United States, in the year 1955. The treaty was introduced during the Cold War times to alleviate the worrisome atmosphere and provide a blanket of safety, security and cooperation. In 1992, the treaty was finally signed by the NATO members and countries which were signatories to the former Warsaw Pact following the demise of the Soviet Union. (NATO is the abbreviated form of the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” or the “ North Atlantic Alliance “, which is an intergovernmental military alliance signed by 30 European and North American countries on 4 April 1949.)  The open skies treaty came into effect in 2002 with 35 countries as its signatories, including Russia and the United States. Apart from these 35 members, the treaty also has one non-ratifying member which is Kyrgyzstan.
What is the aim or importance of OST?
The Open Skies Treaty was introduced with the aim of encouraging confidence and reducing the chances of accidental war among the signatories through mutual openness. Under the treaty, A country can “undertake aerial imaging” and “spy” on any part of the host nation, with the latter’s consent after giving a notice 72 hours before. It would also be required to share its exact flight path 24 hours before. And all the information so gathered has to be shared with all member states. This information can be in the form of troop movements, military exercises and missile deployments. However, aerial imaging is permitted only via approved imaging equipment installed on the surveillance flights. The host member can appoint officials to accompany the other official and stay on board throughout the planned journey.
So, why did the United States withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty?
Well, the reason states by the united states for this is Russia’s movements and violations. For over a decade, many in Washington have accused Russia of non-compliance with OST protocols and misusing its missions for gathering key tactical data. The US also blamed Moscow of obstructing surveillance flights on its territory.
The New York Times had also stated in a report that in 2017 the US President Donald Trump was not very happy with a Russian reconnaissance that flew over his golf course in New Jersey state. Following this, the Trump administration announced its decision of taking a step back from the Open Skies Treaty in May 2020. The US left the treaty in November the same year accusing Russia of “flagrantly and continuously violating the Treaty in various ways for years”.
But, after the US, why did Russia leave?
Russia has always been facing a controversial issue regarding its compliance with the terms of the OST. It has regularly been alleged and chided for not allowing flights over Kaliningrad which is its exclave in Eastern Europe between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania.
The country had tried its best to defend its stance by claiming that the restrictions were permissible and did not violate the rules of the treaty. It also gave the example of the United States imposing similar restrictions on flights over Alaska and after the US withdrew its assent from the treaty, Russia had its own issues. The country demanded assurances from the remaining NATO allies on the treaty that they would not share or transfer any data collected by their surveillance flights over Russia with the United States. And thus, in a statement, Russia stated that its primary reason for leaving the treaty is noncompliance of these requests by the NATO members.
What is the significance of the Open Skies Treaty?
Signed in 1992, the OST came into existence much before the most preferred mode for intelligence gathering in the present- the advent of advanced satellite imaging technology. Data like thermal imaging can be obtained by surveillance aircraft still cannot be gathered by satellite sensors.
According to a report by the Economist, since 2002 Washington flew over 200 surveillance missions over Russia and its ally Belarus using the leverages under the Open skies treaty.
What is the future of the OST now that both the US and Russia are out?
The failure of the Open Skies Treaty has attracted major concerns as it is followed by the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, another significant arms control accord. Both the US and Russia left the INF treaty in 2019 which was signed in 1987 between the United States and the Soviet Union. as a means to decelerate the nuclear arms race, both the global powers committed to destroy two categories of lethal missile systems from their own stocks Under this treaty.
Now, the worries revolve around the much larger US-Russia ‘New START’ nuclear arms control agreement. The president-elect of the United States Joe Biden, who shall be taking over the president office on January 20, has spoken in favour of preserving the treaty in contrast to his predecessor and the outgoing President Donald Trump.

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