Russia has announced that it was leaving the Open Skies Treaty (OST, which was an accord between over 30 countries that allows participants to fly unarmed reconnaissance flights over any part of their fellow member states.
In November, the United States left the OST first after accusing Russia of violating the pact– allegations that Russia denied. Moscow has now blamed Washington for its own decision of leaving the treaty.
The landmark treaty was signed in 1992 between NATO members and former Warsaw Pact countries following the demise of the Soviet Union.
It was proposed in 1955 by former US President Dwight Eisenhower as a means to deescalate tensions during the Cold War.
It went into effect in 2002 and had 35 signatories, including key players US and Russia, along with one non-ratifying member (Kyrgyzstan).
Aim of the treaty
The OST aims at building confidence among members through mutual openness, thus reducing the chances of accidental war.
Under the treaty, a member state can “spy” on any part of the host nation, with the latter’s consent.
A country can undertake aerial imaging over the host state after giving notice 72 hours before, and sharing its exact flight path 24 hours before.
The information gathered, such as on troop movements, military exercises and missile deployments, has to be shared with all member states.
Only approved imaging equipment is permitted on the surveillance flights, and officials from the host state can also stay on board throughout the planned journey.
Significance of treaty
The surveillance aircraft provide key information that still cannot be gathered by satellite sensors, such as thermal imaging data.
The failure of the Open Skies Treaty follows the demise of another significant arms control accord, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, after both the US and Russia left it in 2019.
Reason for US exit
US President Donald Trump was unhappy that a Russian reconnaissance flew over his golf course in New Jersey State in 2017.
US has accused Russia of non-compliance with OST protocols, blaming Moscow of obstructing surveillance flights on its territory, while misusing its own missions for gathering key tactical data.
A contentious issue regarding Russia’s compliance with the OST was its alleged reluctance to allow flights over Kaliningrad, its exclave in Eastern Europe that sits between NATO allies Lithuania and Poland.
After the US left the OST, Russia sought assurances from NATO allies that they would not transfer data collected by their flights over Russia to Washington. These requests were not backed by the NATO members.