The Door Is Closing on the “Open Skies Treaty”

By Nikita Pravilshchikov

Russia is threatening to leave the Treaty of Open Skies, pressuring the Biden administration to rejoin the Treaty of Open Skies, left under President Trump. How feasible are those threats, and is the Biden Administration likely to restore multilateral security collaboration in Europe?

A product of NATO’s Post-Cold War reconciliation attempt, the Treaty on Open Skies was drafted in 1992, shortly after the fall of the USSR. Russia’s new president at the time, young and eager to work with the West, Vladimir Putin, was eager to ratify the Treaty in 2001. With Russia’s entry, the Treaty became an essential part of the ambitious arms control regime between former Cold War adversaries “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” (OSCE, 1992).  20 years later, what is left of the regime is hanging by a thread.

The Treaty’s preamble stressed the importance of fostering transparency and security collaboration enforced by its ratification (Ibid.). Despite the end of the Cold War, mutual distrust in following arms regime protocols (namely nuclear proliferation treaties, such as START) between Russia and NATO states was still present. The newly formed Russian Federation perceived the entry of former Warsaw block countries into the European Union and NATO with suspicion and growing concerns for its national security. Conversely, the sudden and seemingly unprovoked collapse of the USSR, with the lengthy and unresolved legacy of the Cold War, left the US and other NATO members weary of the new Russian state.  
The Treaty might seem egalitarian at first glance: all of the collected footage is available to any state party. Each state party is only permitted a limited number of observational flights to specific parties of the Treaty. 

Nonetheless, already at the first review conference in 2005, tensions arose when Russian representatives expressed their dissatisfaction with NATO countries’ informal agreement not to conduct mutual aerial inspections (Spitzer, 2006). Growing polarization prevented the conference from adopting any amendments to the Treaty. 

To provide a raison d’être for its 2008 military campaign in neighboring Georgia, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which the international community (except for Nicaragua, Venezuela, Naura, Vanuatu and Syria), by far and large, still considers to be a part of Georgia. 
Up to now, Russia has used the Treaty’s provision that allows countries to keep planes 10 km away from their borders with non-signatory states to prevent signatory states from investigating their activity in the region.

The Trump administration cited such casuistic applications of international law and the lack of cooperation in facilitating flights over Kaliningrad and its extensive military training in 2019 among the reasons behind its decision to leave the Open Skies Treaty on May 21st, 2020. The urgings of the international community and multiple open letters to Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State at the time, signed by high ranking members of the US national-security apparatus and twelve US senators urging for a diplomatic solution, did not have the desired effect. 

After several months’ worth of negotiations, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the country’s intention to leave the Treaty in the midst of the US presidential transition, citing “a lack of progress in removing the obstacles for the treaty’s functioning in the new conditions,” as the US exit had “significantly upended the balance of interests of signatory states.”

Restoring American leadership among the world’s democracies was the crux of Joe Biden’s foreign policy pitch on the campaign trail. He often criticized the damage of Donald Trump’s presidency to multilateralism and promised to reverse that legacy if elected. On his first day in office, Biden demonstrated this commitment by signing one executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement and another to cancel Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. On Biden’s campaign website’s foreign policy page, the arms control section primarily focuses on the nuclear proliferation of Iran, North Korea, and Russia (in that order). Although it pledges to work with Russia on extending an existing nuclear proliferation treaty (START), the Open Skies Treaty is not mentioned. It seems as though the Treaty is currently not high on the priority list of the Biden administration. 

Despite Biden’s distinctly Wilsonian rhetoric, he might have to follow his predecessor’s doctrine “America first” closer than he admits for two reasons. Firstly, the pandemic’s impact on the US, both in terms of the death toll and economic recession, poses an immediate challenge to the new administration to focus on at home. Secondly, if there are known cures for coronavirus, the solution to the growing social divide and political polarization that manifested itself both with the Black Lives Matter protests, and the breach of the Capitol building on January 6th is unclear.
Unfortunately for European collective security, even if the US would manage to engage with those challenges while simultaneously following up on Biden’s foreign policy pledges and pursue Open Skies negotiations with Russia, there are a number of potential obstacles in the way. 
Although the Russians have demonstrated the ability to cooperate under pressure, for instance, in February 2020, allowing an observational flight over Kaliningrad in response to the growing US criticism, the Biden administration and their message might present insurmountable obstacles in returning to the pre-Trump status quo. The US efforts to kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a Russian-lobbied project to deliver its gas to Europe, as an effort to retaliate for the poisoning of a famed Russian opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, earlier last year, inspire little hope. Upon returning to Russia in January, Navalny was tried twice and imprisoned. US demand to release him that followed further eroded the relations between the new administration and Vladimir Putin. Both Navalny and Open Skies agreement was mentioned in a first phone call between Joe Biden in his new position and Vladimir Putin, but no statement on the Treaty has followed from either side.

If Russian withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty to be finalized, it would dismantle the last three Post-Cold War European security arrangements, the other two being the Treaty on Conventional Arms Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Vienna Document. This seems to fit Russia’s current trajectory of military expansion and political isolationism from the liberal world order (Ikenberry, 2018): Russia formally announced its intent to cease fulfilling the CFE eight months before its Georgian campaign and de facto stopped complying with the Vienna Document after members of its troops were identified in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Whether Russia would pursue this course or not depends on the internal societal consensus. As long as this muscle-flexing would make up for the decreasing living standards and freedoms in most of the Russian population’s eyes, it will persist.

The implications for European security are dire: NATO members would be uninformed about Russian military capabilities and actions to the level unprecedented since the USSR’s fall. With the hybrid war in Ukraine and reports of Russia’s “green men” offering a friendly hand to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus, NATO is left in the dark at a crucial time for the future of democracy in Eastern Europe. 
If Biden were to fulfill his Wilsonian ambitions, reinvigorating the Open Skies Treaty presents an ample opportunity to deter violence in Europe.


Crawford, John David. 1991. “Introduction To Bifurcation Theory”. Reviews Of Modern Physics 63 (4): 991-1037. doi:10.1103/revmodphys.63.991.Hartwig Spitzer, “The Open Skies Treaty: Entering Full Implementation at a Low Key,” Helsinki Monitor 17, no. 1 (2006): 83-91
Ikenberry, G. John. “Why the liberal world order will survive.” Ethics & International Affairs 32, no. 1 (2018): 17.
OSCE. 1992. “Treaty On Open Skies”. OSCE.

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