Michael KreponCrippling the Open Skies Treaty Punishes Allies and the US, Not Russia

Quote of the week:

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Albert Einstein

Thanks to the reporting of Steve Liewer of the Omaha World-Herald, we have learned about the latest effort by House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry to drive a stake into the heart of the Open Skies Treaty. Liewer reports that Thornberry has struck funding in the Fiscal Year 2019 Defense Authorization Act for two replacement Open Skies aircraft and upgraded sensors because Moscow is misbehaving.

This is an odd way to punish the Kremlin since Open Skies cooperative monitoring flights help the United States and its friends and allies, not Russia. Open Skies missions allow U.S. aircrews to provide ride-sharing opportunities with countries that feel threatened by Vladimir Putin’s revanchist tendencies.

Because Russia is misbehaving, the United States should be doing more to strengthen ties with those threatened by Putin’s actions. This is hard enough to do with the two existing Open Skies aircraft, which were built in 1961 and which suffer from frequent mechanical breakdowns. If they are not replaced – a budget item of $222 million – the United States will eventually become a bystander rather than the leading force behind the Open Skies Treaty. Kudos go to the Trump administration and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis for requesting funds for new Open Skies aircraft — something the Obama administration failed to do.

The Treaty’s benefits have changed over time because it has proven to be extraordinarily adaptable to changed circumstances in Europe and Russia. The George H.W. Bush administration initially took flak for seeking the Open Skies Treaty because the United States possessed far better means of collecting information by utilizing satellites. This critique was misguided because other state parties – especially newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and countries unburdened by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact – did not have ready access to satellite data. What these countries needed, far more than imagery, was reassurance. Open Skies flights provided an opportunity for states finding their footing to develop patterns of cooperation with the United States — and with each other.

As Putin began to push back against NATO expansion and the color revolutions around his periphery, Open Skies flights became even more important, allowing the United States to demonstrate in tangible ways its interest in assisting friends and allies needing to keep tabs on Russia. This is increasingly hard to do because of mechanical difficulties with the two aging Open Skies aircraft. Steve offers one telling detail in his reporting:

“In March 2016, a U.S. flight over Russia had to be canceled after the OC-135 developed electrical problems on the ground in Khabarovsk, leaving the Offutt-based crew stranded,” according to a document obtained by The World-Herald. “The crew obtained a waiver to fly out of the country two days later with its most critical generator disabled. Shortly after takeoff, a fire started in the jet’s pressurization system, filling the aircraft cabin with dense smoke. Wearing oxygen masks, the crew extinguished the fire and cleared the smoke. The pilot declared an emergency and continued the flight without power or radio in the rear cabin. The pilot had to fly over a mountain range before landing safely.”

Chairman Thornberry’s mark of the Defense Authorization Bill cites selective Russian adherence to the Treaty as his primary justification for withholding funds for new aircraft and sensors. The Kremlin has restricted flight plans by Open Skies aircraft over sensitive locations – sites like Kaliningrad that can be closely monitored by other means. In response, the United States has placed restrictions on the Kremlin’s Open Skies missions. This tit-for-tat approach is warranted, but Thornberry finds it insufficient. He would withhold funding for new U.S. aircraft and sensors “until such time as the President (or the Secretary of State) is able to certify that the President has imposed treaty violations responses and legal countermeasures.” But that’s not all. Among the demands Thornberry lists before new Open Skies aircraft can be procured are:

“the extradition of Russian citizens involved in undertaking unlawful activities against the United States incident to the 2016 Presidential election, it has withdrawn from Crimea and ceased support to Russian proxies in Eastern Ukraine, and has ceased all military and financial support for any state that uses or has used against its civilian population any agent or substance banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

All of these are worthy objectives, warranting countermeasures. None appear achievable anytime soon. In the meantime, sound U.S. national security strategy mandates continued ride-sharing with friends and allies over Russian territory – especially after the fissures created by President Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal and his intention to impose secondary sanctions on friends and allies in Europe that continue to hold up their end of the deal.

The Open Skies Treaty permits up to 42 over-flights of Russia by state parties. Ideally, the United States would execute its entire quota of sixteen Open Skies missions over Russian territory in the company of friends and allies, but this isn’t possible with aging aircraft. Of the sixteen over-flights planned for 2017, according to the State Department, two were to be shared with Ukraine, two with Canada, one with the Czech Republic, one with Denmark, one with Germany, one with France, two with Italy, one with Norway, one with Romania, one with Sweden, one with Turkey, one with Great Britain, one with both Canada and Hungary, and one flight over the territory of Ukraine shared with Canada.

Of the sixteen over-flights planned for 2017, thirteen were flown. This number will almost certainly be reduced in 2018 as mechanical problems mount. Who loses when U.S. Open Skies flights are grounded? Certainly not Russia. The biggest losers are the United States and its friends and allies that are justifiably wary of Russian behavior. So why punish the home team while letting the Kremlin off the hook?


  1. Jon Q (History)

    Hopefully, this congressional action is a prelude to withdrawing completely from the Open Skies Treaty, which does far less for the U.S. and our allies today than you claim.

    Furthermore, your characterization of the issues concerning the implementation of the Open Skies Treaty, and in particular Russia’s compliance with its legal obligations, is inaccurate and misleading, particularly with respect to softening the degree of Russian non-compliance and implying vaguely that restrictions on flight paths are a mere “tit-for-tat” back-and-forth activity practiced equally by both Russia and the United States. That is simply not true.

  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    Jon Q:
    Your comment is a good example of argument by assertion, a regrettably common practice.
    You assert that I use ‘inaccurate and misleading’ arguments. Well, let’s compare my reasoning against yours.
    I have given reasons why continued US participation in the Open Skies Treaty would benefit the US, allies and friends in Europe. What benefits, in your view, would be gained by withdrawing from the Treaty? How do your presumed benefits of withdrawal outweigh the likely consequences of withdrawal?
    Go ahead, back up your assertion.
    Also, please make the case why the US curtailment of Russian overflights is not ‘tit for tat’ with Russian curtailments. You might have a good case here, but kindly lay it out.

  3. Jon Q (History)

    Sir, you have given exactly one reason why continued U.S. participation in OST would be beneficial, i.e., it offers a publicly visible opportunity for the United States and our friends and allies to demonstrate political solidarity to Russia. You have simply re-packaged that basic rationale as “ride-sharing opportunities” and a means to “demonstrate in tangible ways [U.S.] interest in assisting friends and allies…to keep tabs on Russia,” while providing a list of joint overflights of Russia conducted in 2017.

    And the tenor of your argument is such that one might think there are no other avenues for such level of cooperation or support (particularly public) of those allies. But alas, let the reader bear in mind that 3/4 of the Visegard Group were admitted to full membership in NATO during the last century, and the majority of the former Warsaw Pact states that are now members of NATO have been members for nearly a decade and a half. The point being, OST is not the essential vehicle for demonstrating U.S. support to friends and allies that you make it out to be. And the absence of OST would not deprive them of vital intelligence gathering pertinent to their security.

    Now, in the spirit of fairness, please allow me to suggest perhaps a more relevant reason to continue OST overflights — and by extension, support your argument to fund the purchase of two new OST aircraft. Here it is: Imagery collected by OST flights is provided to ALL Parties to the Treaty. Hence, OST provides a “publicly” (meaning government-to-government only) available source of imagery (so the theory goes) to support discussions among Parties about security issues of concern. That, sir, is your pro-positive argument.

    However, that argument must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Please allow me a moment to point out some facts by way of explanation. As you point out, OST permits up to 42 over-flights of Russia each year. What you do not mention, however, is that the Treaty permits no more than 1 flight per week — thereby limiting flexibility. “So what?” one might say, “There are 52 weeks in the year.” That’s all well and good, except for the fact that weather can have a real effect on the results of a mission – or whether a mission is even conducted. You also noted the United States planned 16 over-flights in 2017 but only flew 13, with the unwritten implication being that three missions were scrubbed due to mechanical issues with the U.S. aircraft. Perhaps that’s true. I don’t know. But what I do know is that missions have been scrubbed or curtailed in the past simply due to weather. So, add Treaty constraints to natural constraints and the flexibility of the Treaty’s monitoring regime stiffens — and the consequent utility of those over-flights diminishes (except for the show of solidarity, which may explain why you kept to that justification for purchasing new aircraft and upholding the regime to that).

    Oh, but there’s more. Now sprinkle in the notion of joint missions with friends and allies that must be scheduled in coordination with participating states. However, other allies can and do conduct over-flights of Russia as well. Presumably then, a joint mission must be coordinated with non-participating states as well to ensure everyone (i.e., U.S., allies and friends alike) de-conflicts their schedules so as to avoid an embarrassing and unfortunate misunderstanding between Parties, especially where finite money and resources are concerned — with the result being even less flexibility (keeping in mind that 1 flight a week business) and consequent utility. The scheduling reality alone means OST flights are not the “gotcha” exercises one might think–at least not for the U.S. and NATO. So depriving ourselves and allies of these flights would not be “letting the Kremlin off the hook” as you suggest. (Oh, and just to point out one other detail, The Treaty states no one Party may overfly Russia more than 21 times a year. Since as you point out the United States is not even maximizing its own quota ought to add a healthy dose of skepticism to the implied perceived intelligence value of those over-flights.)

    Now, the practical effect of the Treaty constraints I mention above do not affect Russia to nearly the same degree. Russia, to the best of my knowledge, does not conduct joint flights. And even if they do, they call the shots. Also, my understanding of U.S.-allied relations is that we do not inspect each other, as a matter of general arms control practice writ large. The combined effect of these realities is that Russia has far greater flexibility to conduct up to 42 over-flights of U.S. (21x sublimit) and allied territory when they want, without the need to coordinate with umpteen other Parties on the when and where to go. If public statements are to be believed about the relative state of Russian satellite coverage as compared to U.S. and allied capabilities, and one were to reflect on the fact Russia did invest in new/upgraded OST aircraft, one might come to the conclusion that OST might indeed provide Russia with a valuable source and means to collect intelligence. I do not point this out to discredit the merits of transparency, but I do point this out to note the built-in disparity in transparency inherent to the Treaty’s structure in the context of our current political-military environment.

    It is on top of all of that that one must then assess Russia’s non-compliance with its obligations under OST to permit and facilitate over-flight of ALL Russian territory. When such restrictions limit further U.S. and allied access to Russian territory and impinge on our ability to exercise our full Treaty rights, both the spirit and the letter of the Treaty are trampled. Accordingly, not only is the expenditure on new OST aircraft legitimately called into question, but so too are the merits of allowing the Treaty to remain in effect. And, mind you, I’ve limited my argument thus far to within the four corners of the OST discussion. Set in broader context of Russian arms control violations across the board (to include the unlawful suspension of CFE, the similarly inconsistent implementation of the Vienna Document, and the outright violation of the INF Treaty), and the argument about whether to fund new OST aircraft should more properly be whether to continue implementing the Treaty altogether, or whether the U.S. (and our allies and friends) should exercise their right to withdraw from the Treaty. Hence, my initial comment above.

    I hope this more fulsome response enlightens your readers on OST facts and some of the practical realities that bear on its relative merits in the current political-military situation in the European security environment.

    P.s. (If you really are hard over on the need to get new capabilities — for the sake of our allies — then you really need to investigate why our allies have voluntarily elected to forego supporting the sustainment of OST capabilities themselves.)

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Jon Q:
      Many thanks for your considered response. Much appreciated.
      You frame the benefits and risks of OST overflights in terms of intelligence-gathering. But the Treaty wasn’t sought or negotiated for this reason. As you note, the US has much better means of gathering information about Russian activities — both at the time of the negotiations as well as now and in the future. The GHW Bush administration didn’t seek the Treaty for this reason. The Treaty was sought for political effect, not for intel gathering. Political effect and benefit have changed over time, but this remains the main value of the Treaty. Now, more than ever, it’s about reassurance, not intel gathering. Reassurance of America’s friends and allies that are regrettably spooked is much needed — not just because of Russian behavior, but also because of the Trump administration’s behavior. Of course there are other ways to reassure (or worry) friends and allies. But why kick this one to the curb without having something better to offer in its place? This is becoming a theme that weakens US international standing and alliance ties.
      If you are concerned about presumed Russian advantages (new planes, new sensors) in this regard, the remedies are straightforward: buy new planes and sensors.The Obama administration failed to set this in motion. Now that the Trump administration has, what’s the point in unsettling friends and allies in Europe even more by denying funding? The general reason you offer — bad Russian behavior — isn’t persuasive, in my view. I agree that Russian behavior is in many respects reprehensible, which makes the reassurance mission even more important.
      Welcome to ACW!

  4. Jon Q (History)

    Arms control and confidence building measures are not ends in and of themselves and should not be treated as such. So with all due respect to our spirited and (importantly) civil discussion, I reject the notion that anything (in terms of CBMs) must replace OST should it cease to function. The world will not tilt off its axis and stop rotating if OST were terminated without any new agreement in its stead to replace it. The sky did not fall when the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty (contrary to the prognostications of so many arms control advocates and their Russian commiserators — all of whom continue to cry about missile defense), nor has the sky fallen in the wake of Russia’s systemic neglect of its arms control obligations across the board. Ironically, it is the arms control measures themselves that have too often become the basis for many political recriminations being bandied about back-and-forth between Russia and West — some more legitimately than others (and I think you can surmise where I come down on that count). Rhetorically speaking, why allow that to continue? Remove the proximate cause.

    Also, I reject the notion that U.S. international standing with allies, friends, and foes allies alike will be weakened if the OST is terminated. To the contrary, I think U.S. leadership and strength will be respected by our allies and friends (even if not appreciated right away) and, most certainly, by Russia. As President Obama declared loudly in his Prague speech, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Well in arms control, which by its very nature consists of agreements between the willing, when a Party demonstrates its unwillingness to honor the agreement as a matter of practice and remains recalcitrant to rehabilitation, then the only real recourse within the four corners of the agreement is to cease implementation (preferably by exercising the appropriate remedial terms contained within the agreement itself, which in the case of OST is withdrawal). It is folly to continue implementing an agreement under such circumstances, if only because it demonstrates weakness and lack of political will to curtail bad practice by the abusing Party. The U.S. has endured Russian bad practice in arms control, to include OST, for a decade (or more). While there can be virtue in long suffering patience, the time has long since passed when the U.S. needs to call Russia’s bluff and present them an alternative consequence. With each year that passes, Russia’s impunity grows and U.S. lack of strong leadership to countermand Russia serves to weaken alliance resolve, creating political fissures between allies whenever any state subsequently questions whether to continue the Treaty. The question becomes, “Why now? What has changed that was not the case last year, other than more time has passed (which the U.S. has demonstrated is tolerable)?” And Russia both nurtures and exploits those fissures to the detriment of both allied relations and the European security environment.

    And speaking of Russia, we constantly hear how important arms control agreements (especially bilateral agreements with the United States) are to Russia’s collective pysche. We are told over and over that arms control agreements give them a “seat at the table” and serve to prop up their international standing. So, you have it backwards. It is Russia’s international standing such agreements serve far more than U.S. international standing. U.S. standing within the proverbial international community (whatever that is) is predicated upon our leadership and strength — or lack thereof — in the proper context of the international political situation. I have stated above how I believe U.S. international standing is best served with regard to the OST in the current context.

    Note, I am not advocating the U.S. withdraw from OST merely because I think the Treaty disproportionately advantages Russia over the West and because the U.S. has better means of gathering intelligence (although I believe both to be true), or even because I simply don’t like the Treaty (which is not true). In fact, if you want to spend money to procure new reconnoitering aircraft with sophisticated surveillance capabilities for the military, I am sure there are all manner of missions present and future that could benefit from such assets. Far be it from me to dissuade such prudent military procurement. But to procure such assets for the primary dedicated purpose of preserving OST is silly, unnecessary, and motivated by naive and misguided supposition (assuming good intentions). You point out that the G.W. Bush administration resurrected President Eisenhower’s concept of the OST for its “political effect.” The hope was certainly to build upon anticipated improving relations between the U.S. and the West with Russia in order to improve the European security environment. Well, as you have acknowledged times have changed. Even the Obama Administration acknowledged the “reset” had failed in the face of a revanchist Moscow regime prior to the current administration taking power. And I now suggest that U.S. and allied withdrawal from OST would yield better “political effect” toward improving the European security environment by demonstrating real, tangible political solidarity in the face of ongoing, habitual bad faith on the part of Russia in implementing the OST. For starters, it would deprive Russia of the veneer of legitimacy despite their misconduct in failing to implement fully their obligations under OST. (Obviously, this position is set within the context of broader issues involving Russian actions across the political-military sphere within and affecting the European security environment and, therefore, is not intended to be proposed in isolation.) No, I earnestly disagree with your view that the “political effect” of the United States and our allies remaining party to the OST despite the current, ongoing bad faith practices of Russia is better than it would be in withdrawing from the agreement.

    Suffice to say, now is not the time for formal arms control agreements to be relied upon, naively even if genuinely, to maintain that effervescent appeal to “stability.” Not when their stature is mocked by the very Party with whom they were agreed in effort to codify a status quo that existed at the time they were signed, but which that Party now clearly seeks to amend. Not when their terms are flaunted when inconvenient to that Party, and in turn, pitched as a political weapon for recrimination against other Parties when it serves the offending Party’s purpose. As I stated previously, arms control agreements are tools and should be treated as such. They are, in significant part, political barometers. And when they cease to function as intended, whether because they have become obsolete and/or because one or more Parties seek to change the status quo under which they were designed to function, it is incumbent upon responsible Parties to call out the recalcitrant Party and, if it refuses to adhere to the agreement, terminate the agreement for cause, so that all may clearly know that the conditions that once existed to yield the beneficial agreement have changed materially to the potential detriment of all — and this so that other means to “control arms” (as necessary) and preserve the security of those offended can be devised and whatever political-military support deemed appropriate may be mustered to stem any further deterioration of the security situation they were designed originally to support and, hopefully, bring the feuding Parties back together to address their respective security concerns peacefully.

    Finally — and really as an aside — I must take issue with one distinct aspect of your latest response. Although I am no apologist for the Trump Administration, your off-handed remark that “the Trump administration’s behavior” has somehow “spooked” our allies as much as Russia’s actions is inappropriate, and it is unseemly that you would disparage the current administration in the context of Russia’s consistent, ongoing bad faith conduct (not to mention internally inconsistent with your own backhanded endorsement of Trump’s support of the new aircraft in contravention to the Obama administration’s position on the matter). Frankly, it reeks of a partisan political agenda far beyond the scope of this discussion. President Trump has, indeed, called on key allies to meet their NATO financial obligations. To the extent that has irritated allies, so be it. But in so doing, he has not threatened to abandon the alliance; rather, he has emphasized one aspect of the burden sharing critical to the long-term success of alliance. You may wish to raise other examples, but frankly, I do not wish to engage any further in such dialogue which is tangential to this thread. I respectfully must leave this issue at this rebuke.

    In effort to end on a good note, I appreciate your willingness to post my comments, especially since I have challenged directly — and rather pointedly at times — your commentaries. I had no intention of writing my own article, but what more can I say than that I have enjoyed our dialogue.



  5. Michael Krepon (History)

    Jon Q:

    Thank you for engaging in this dialogue. I appreciate it.

    We disagree about what the Open Skies Treaty is about. There’s far more to Open Skies than “a publicly visible opportunity for the United States and our friends and allies to demonstrate political solidarity to Russia.” While this is important, of course, it is also important to promote military-to-military cooperation and ties with states of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Other avenues of cooperation are available with respect to the data obtained on cooperative aerial overflights, as you have acknowledged. As I have written, reassuring friends and allies is a crucial test of U.S. leadership — one that the Trump administration has managed poorly. To be sure, the United States has other means to reassure anxious friends and allies, but they are hard to identify at present. Why, then, walk away from a proven means of reassurance?

    You argue that NATO membership is sufficient for reassurance. But Ukraine and Georgia, which can ride share with the United States, are not NATO members. Nor is NATO membership sufficient for reassurance at a time when it has been publicly and repeatedly denigrated by the President of the United States. You also argue that Open Skies over-flights of Russia — of which 42 are permitted by Treaty parties — are insufficient. As you say, they can be scrubbed because of bad weather or mechanical problems. If you want to argue that the number of Open Skies missions over Russia is insufficient, or that there isn’t enough transparency because of Open Skies, that’s OK. But then don’t turn around and conclude that zero over-flights of Russia is better than the 16 that the United States is allotted under the Treaty.

    Your critique here assumes that the primary utility of the over-flights is — or should be — military intelligence. It’s not, and it never has been. Open Skies over-flights are not, and have never been about playing ‘gotcha.’ Over-flight procedures were carefully negotiated to protect sensitive information of the countries that are overflown. If you want to gather military intelligence about Russia, you do this by national technical means, not by ride-sharing arrangements when representatives of the host country are on board.

    The primary purposes of the Open Skies Treaty are political rather than military in nature. The Treaty was negotiated to foster reassurance. Initially, implementation helped to reassure all state parties, including Russia, after the dissolution of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Now reassurance has taken on a much different aspect, given Putin’s pushback against the dissolution of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Those who need reassurance the most at present are friends and allies of the United States. A draw down of permitted over-flights because of aging aircraft and growing maintenance issues will not be reassuring to them.

    Your concluding paragraph seems, at least to me, to constitute the heart of the matter. Putin has violated conventional, nuclear and chemical treaties. He is engaging in dangerous military practices and disregarding the sovereignty of neighboring states. These are serious and undeniable concerns. How best to respond? What combined military and diplomatic instruments would best serve the national security interests of the United States while assisting friends and allies? In my view, the Open Skies Treaty is one of these instruments. How are U.S. national security interests, as well as the interests of friends and allies, served by doing away with it? You haven’t made this case.

    Best wishes,