Just this week, the Trump administration signalled an intention to withdraw from the historic Open Skies Treaty. While the surveillance flights it permitted might carry more political than strategic value for Washington, it is certainly likely to cause trouble for smaller European allies.
First put forth by Eisenhower in 1955, the deal ties together 33 states; the usual North American and European Union suspects, yes, but also ex-Soviet countries, including Russia, Belarus and Georgia.
Announced at a press conference – as well as Twitter – last week, the move is couched in legitimate concerns about Russia’s implementation of the treaty. The country has, admittedly, denied US flyover rights in critical locations, including Russian-occupied parts of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), rendering it somewhat pointless. Flight restrictions are also in place over the Kaliningrad region, a critical enclave that lies between Lithuania and Poland.
Yet at the same time, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also argues that Russia is using imagery obtained through reconnaissance flights conducted in line with Open Skies “in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions”. As Pompeo puts it, “Russia has, therefore, weaponised the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”
Of course, in the age of satellite-based imagery, this is all bluster and bluff. Writing in ASPI’s The Strategist, Connor Dilleen points out that Russia operates satellites equipped with greater imagery capabilities than any of its Open Skies aircraft.
Most member states have long shared the view that Russia is not in full compliance, though they might not cite the above as cause for concern. Back in 2018, NATO chiefs outlined what they termed “Russia’s ongoing selective implementation” of the treaty. And while these are legitimate problems, the foreign ministries insisted that the accord “remains functioning and useful” and has “clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security”.
Speaking with typical Teutonic candour, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put this particularly bluntly in recent days. Russia was not respecting the treaty, he said, “but from our point of view, this does not justify a withdrawal”. Among other things, he hopes to work with European allies to talk the US back to the table.
It is no great secret that the move comes as part of a broader isolationist trend from Washington. Last year, the US also withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a Cold War deal that banned both the US and the Soviet Union from deploying short-medium range and intermediate-range land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers. The year before that, Trump steered the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, more commonly known as the “Iran nuclear deal”.
Many in Europe have levelled criticism at these decisions, all the more so this week. One of the more common examples quoted on the withdrawal in many major media outlets is Russian political scientist Alexei Arbatov. “Trump does not understand the value of existing international agreements,” he says. “These people have inherited the results of a 50-year effort to build a system of global security, but they are treating it all like contracts to supply food to supermarkets.”
Headaches for NATO
But what say the smaller NATO states? Those who stand to gain the most from mutual defence pacts and these sorts of accords?
Latvia and Estonia – both of which share a land border with Russia – have been surprisingly quiet on the issue. Perhaps Baltic leaders hope that Pompeo is bluffing, and that he hopes to double down on remarks regarding a “new deal” sooner rather than later. In any case, it’s long been clear that these countries depend on Open Skies and a host of other treaties as core elements of their defence infrastructures. As NATO have shifted military facilities onto their soil over the years, some have said they look to “become a World War III battlefield”. While this is likely hyperbole, it seems that actions speak louder than words on their part.
Some have suggested Russia might seek to stay in the treaty in order to cosy up to remaining states; this could include peripheral states like Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, or it could include larger NATO staples that have been openly critical of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s approach to the issue.
Indeed, Chinese and Russian media outlets have reported comments that seem to support this view. While Russia has pushed back fairly openly on the US decision in the public eye, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seems interested in using the development as a means to sidle up to partner countries.
“We will take an extremely balanced approach to analysing this situation, relying primarily on our national interests and the interests of our allies,” said Lavrov at a news conference following an online meeting of the foreign ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization members.
Analysts have also pointed to the timing as suspect – given many of Trump’s base are supportive of a return to the sort of isolationism that flavoured US policy throughout the Great Depression and the pre-war era, it could well be a play to shore up support in the run-up to November. If, indeed, it is a move for domestic support, many believe it to be a miscalculation from a foreign policy standpoint.
“It’s very much playing, I’m afraid, into the hands of the Russians,” Lukasz Kulesa, senior researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. “It’s very easy for the Russians and also for others to construct a narrative in which the Russian violations of the treaty kind of go to the sideline and we all talk about this crazy Trump administration that is destroying the arms control.”
The same policy playbook that has led to the Open Skies withdrawal is likely to colour how the US approaches any extension to the New START treaty, which is due for renewal by February. Indeed, the administration has already flagged that it hopes to include the UK, France and even China in any deal, which is unlikely to please either Paris or London.