The United States’ exit from the Open Sky Treaty last month will aggravate already growing tensions between NATO and Russia– and exacerbate the great powers’ arms race with consequences for Eurasia and the rest of the world.
The treaty, which came into force in 2002, was a significant confidence-building measure agreed upon immediately after the Cold War and sanctioned short notice (72 hour) unarmed aerial observation flights to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities. Initially, the 25 states and subsequently, nine additional states voluntarily opened their airspace on a reciprocal basis, permitting over-flights of their territories to enhance mutual understanding, build confidence and promote openness and transparency in military forces and activities.
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Increased reliance on satellites
But with the crumbling of the treaty, the reliance on satellites placed in outer space will increase, which will compel states to introduce ever more advanced spy satellites. This increases the risks of miscalculations and conflicts in Eurasia. Indeed, strategic competition among the great powers in Eurasia directly affects global strategic stability.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America was more secure after its departure from the treaty. This is a debatable proclamation because the US exit only intensifies mistrust among the signatories. Moreover, he deliberately belittled Russian and Chinese investment in reconnaissance satellites and their anti-satellite capabilities.
US withdrawal from the treaty is disadvantageous to Russia. Being a member of NATO, Americans can still indirectly get sensitive data from European allies. A similar opportunity is not available to Russia against the US.
The Americans believe that their reconnaissance satellites are superior to the aircraft and specified sensors permitted in the Open Sky Treaty, which stipulates four types of sensors for aerial observation flights.
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Events making surveillance crucial?
US officials have long complained about Russia’s non-compliance with the treaty and were disturbed due to Russia’s imposition of limits on their surveillance flight lengths over the militarized Kaliningrad exclave in June 2017.
Notably, the enclave’s surveillance is crucial for NATO members, especially after the Americans deployed missile defense systems in Romania, the Czech Republic, and Poland. In a quid pro quo, Russians deployed Iskander nuclear-capable missile system in Kaliningrad. With these missiles, the Kremlin can strike large parts of NATO members Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These deployments are akin to cold war NATO and Warsaw pacts nuclear weapons deployments.
On Aug. 13, 2018, President Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, which suspended funding for the treaty until Russia was “in complete compliance with [its] obligations.” The following month, Washington denied access to two Russian Tu-214ON surveillance planes to participate in an Open Skies inspection.
Currently, Russia has been struggling to establish its supremacy in Europe. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and two provinces of Georgia in 2008 were parts of its proactive strategy in Europe. Therefore, the Russians will not leave the treaty despite the US exit because the continuity of the membership enables Moscow to continue aerial surveillance of European states.
The treaty has facilitated verifying arms control and disarmament agreements between NATO and formal Warsaw Pact’s members. It has reduced the possibility of miscalculation and misperception entailing to war and mistrust between the Russian Federation and US-led western powers.
Implications for world order
Since 2017, Russian and American officials have criticized each other for violating bilateral and multilateral arms control treaties and confidence-building agreements. Despite Russian clarifications, the US formally withdrew from the 1987 intermediate range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019.
But this recent withdrawal from a multilateral confidence-building arrangement only strengthens the nuclear hawks in America, who advocate the end of the 2011 New Start Treaty on the nuclear arms reduction between the US and Russia in February 2021. The New Start Treaty’s demise increases nuclear weapons deployment, aggregating the risks of accidental and inadvertent use of nuclear weapons.
In summary, the American withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty could unleash an arms race between the great powers, with serious global political implications.
Indeed, in the rapidly changing global strategic environment and the echos of a new Cold War, the treaty’s weakening is disadvantageous for many militarily insecure nations.
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is also an advisor on Non-Proliferation to SASSI, London and a course coordinator at Foreign Services Academy for the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece was first published in Arab News. It has been republished with permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.