On November 22, 2020, the United States officially withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty.

“The United States is no longer a State Party to the Treaty on Open Skies,” revealed the US Department of State spokesman in a statement. The treaty that allows the 34 party nations to openly carry aerial surveillance over each others’ territory, has lost the US from its members list. 

“Today, pursuant to earlier notice provided, the United States withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is now effective. America is more secure because of it, as Russia remains in non-compliance with its obligations,” tweeted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

The US submitted notice of withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies on May 22, 2020. The government blamed Russia for violating the Treaty by blocking surveillance flights around certain areas, including the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia was accused of violating the Treaty objectives of promoting military transparency and mutual accountability. The decision, taken so close to the 2020 US presidential election, was questioned by the US Senate. 

“Rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency, Russia has, therefore, weaponized the Treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat,” said Pompeo in a written statement on May 21, 2020. “We may be willing to reconsider this decision if Russia demonstrates a return to full compliance with this confidence-building Treaty, but without such a change of course from the Kremlin, our path will lead to withdrawal in six months’ time.”

In a press conference on November 12, 2020, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked the remaining NATO members for a written assurance that their gathered data would not be shared with the US. Lavrov added that US military bases in Europe would continue to be surveilled by Russia. 

After coming to power, President Trump pulled out the US from several international treaties, including the 2016 Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the 2019 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF). The Open Skies Treaty presented one of the few opportunities for military-to-military contact between the two countries.  

Both Russia and NATO allies are hopeful that newly elected US president Joe Biden will rejoin the Treaty. He criticized the decision to withdraw, but has not yet confirmed any plans to rejoin the agreement. 

“These Russian violations should be addressed not by withdrawing from the Treaty, but by seeking to resolve them through the Treaty's implementation and dispute mechanism,” Biden said in a statement. “Without us, the Treaty could crumble. Withdrawal will exacerbate growing tensions between the West and Russia, and increase the risks of miscalculation and conflict.”

The Open Skies Treaty was signed in Helsinki by 23 member nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in March 1992. It entered into force on January 2, 2002. The agreement permits nations to conduct unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory. Every country has an yearly quota for how many flights it must accept (passive quota), and how many it can conduct (active quota). Since 2002, more than 1,500 flights have been conducted. 

READ MORE:
 
Usually, reconnaissance aircraft (colloquially referred to as "spy planes") approaching foreign airspace provoke a strong reaction, often in the form of an interception and an official diplomatic complaint. However, another means exists to access the airspace of a foreign country and observe its territory without a hitch: open skies overflights. In September 2020, at least two such flights will be carried out thanks to the "Treaty on Open Skies."