The President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin submitted to the State Duma a bill on Russia’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty on May 11, 2021. The treaty allows mutual aerial monitoring of military movements and strategic installations of the signatory countries.
Russia announced its intention to withdraw from the Treaty on January 15, 2021. The move followed a similar decision from the Trump administration on November 22, 2020, citing “repeated violations from Russia.”
“On November 22, 2020, the US used a far-fetched pretext to leave the Treaty, thus significantly disrupting the balance of interests of the parties to the Treaty achieved when it was signed,” the bill reads. “Thus, serious damage was dealt to the observance of the Treaty and its significance in building trust and transparency, and a threat to Russia’s national security emerged.”
The Russian administration fears that other signatory countries, especially members of NATO, could transfer the information obtained within the framework of “Open Skies” to Washington, even after the United States officially withdrew from the treaty.
Among the alleged violations of the treaty, one point of contention was the fact that Russia refused for the treaty to apply to the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which the Kremlin recognizes as independent countries and thus outside of the Treaty’s jurisdiction. Another issue concerns the overflight time of the Kaliningrad enclave, above which Russia unilaterally imposed a limit of 500 kilometers as to not disturb civilian flights too long.
In a plenary meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission on February 22, 2021, Konstantin Gavrilov, the head of the Russian delegation, announced that the domestic withdrawal procedure of the Russian Federation from the Open Skies Treaty would be done by the end of summer 2021. From the moment each party officially notify the other depositories of their withdrawal, they have 6 months to reverse the process.
This seems unlikely, however, as US President Joe Biden’s administration voiced its concern that reintegrating the organization would send the “wrong message” to Russia, and “undermine” its position on arms control. On April 3, 2021, the USAF announced that the two Boeing OC-135B observation planes specifically equipped for the application of the treaty would be retired and sent to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), colloquially known as the Boneyard, in Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, United States, “in the next couple of months.”
The Open Skies Treaty was signed in 1992, and ratified on January 1, 2002, by the members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Each country must accept a number of observation flights, the “passive quota” and is able to carry out as many as it received, the “active quota”. A 72-hour notice before an observation flight must be communicated to the authorities of the observed country, and the other members of the treaty. Once the flight is carried out, the data collected is available to all signatories.