The Open Skies Treaty (OST) is in jeopardy. Signed in 1992 and in force since 2002, the treaty, a fundamental trust-building measure, permits its 34 ratified member-states to conduct observation flights over one another’s territory while capturing aerial imagery of military personnel and materiel. The compliance is monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Over 1,200 flights have been conducted worldwide through the treaty, which allots active and passive quotas to the signatory states based on the size of their territories. Over the past 15 years, the US and Russia have made a combined 165 flights.
On Dec. 28, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Russia limits the scope of US military observation flights over its territory starting from Jan. 1, 2018. Moscow cancels overnight stops at three airfields for US observation planes, as well as scraps a number of bilateral agreements that were made to facilitate observation flights. The step is taken in response to US curbs on similar Russian flights over Hawaii and Alaska coming into force on the first day of 2018. The restrictions are reversible and could be lifted if the US backtracked on its policies.
In September, the US warned Russia that the restrictions on flights over the Kaliningrad region – a non-contiguous section of Russian territory squeezed between Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea – were seen as a violation of the treaty. Russia restricted flights over the Kaliningrad region because some parties to the treaty crossed the length and breadth of the flight path, causing problems in the use of the region's limited airspace and to the Kaliningrad international airport. It prompted Moscow to restrict the maximum flight distance over the Kaliningrad Region to 500 kilometres without changing the total flight distance of 5,500 km and hence coverage of Russia’s territory. The regulation does not run contrary to the OST or the signatories’ subsequent decisions. The flight range of 500 km is sufficient for observing any part of the region. The US, Canada, Turkey and Georgia have established restrictions within the treaty on flying over their territories.
Russia has been accused of the unlawful denial to permit observation flights in the 10 kilometer border area of the so-called Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the two entities are sovereign states recognized as such by Russia. The Open Sky Treaty states that the flights must not violate a ten-kilometer corridor along the border of another state.
Another accusation said Moscow overused the force majeure provision to change the coordinated plans of observation flights due to flights made by the country’s leaders in close proximity to the planned paths of observation flights. But the provision was invoked only once.
Why the US has chosen to keep Russian surveillance aircraft away from Alaska and the Hawaii? Alaska is home to four air bases, three naval facilities, Minuteman III ICBMs sites. On November 2, the military finished installing the 44th Ground-based Interceptor (GBI) at the Missile Defense Complex at Fort Greely, Alaska, completing the deployment of 14 additional GBIs ordered by President Obama in 2013. Hawaii is where United States Air Force Hickam Air Force Base and the Naval Station Pearl Harbor as well as Pacific Missile Range Facility are located.
Actually, it’s not a severe blow; Russia can use satellites to observe these areas. But it’s a start. The restrictions could unleash a chain reaction to bury the treaty as part of a broader process of arms control erosion. For instance, Georgia has closed its skies to Russian observation flights in a clear and gross violation of the OST. It calls the 2018 flights into question. The decision could be explained by the desire to conceal from observers the construction of military facilities.
The Open Skies Treaty continues to be a valuable instrument for security and stability at the time of arms control crisis. The OST enhances transparency and the risk of war. With the treaty in force, the US gains as much as Russia but by having provoked Moscow into taking retaliatory measures it has made one more step to make the world slide an unfettered arms race.