Card-sharping against Russia will not work

2:44, 27 июля 2021

МОСКВА, 27 июля 2021, Институт РУССТРАТ.

Russia was again accused of withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty (OST) at the OST Party-States Conference, held on July 20, 2021 in Vienna. None of the options proposed by our country for taking into account Russia’s interests were heard by Western partners.

As Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said at the end of the Conference, “the actions would have been different” if there had really been an interest in keeping Russia in the Treaty.

Let’s turn to the events that preceded Russia’s decision to withdraw from the OST. The United States of America was the first to declare its withdrawal from the Treaty and then officially withdraw. This happened on November 22, 2020. Russia expressed regret over this decision. This step, which did not come as a surprise against the background of the general policy of the US government, once again caused significant damage to arms control and became a serious blow to European security.

From the very beginning, the US announcement of its withdrawal from the Treaty was accompanied by far-fetched accusations against the Russian Federation of allegedly “grossly violating” the Treaty and “distorting” its essence.

Russia has repeatedly stated its position in response to these accusations.

First, it indicated that the maximum flight range of 500 kilometres over the Kaliningrad Region was established and implemented strictly in accordance with the provisions of the OST and the decisions of the OSCC (Open Skies Consultative Commission), an international body involved in the implementation of the Treaty. This scheme provides the same surveillance efficiency as in the case of flights over the rest of the Russian Federation and the territories of neighbouring states (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

For consideration: taking into account the existing ranges of observation flights, the United States can observe and photograph 77% of the Kaliningrad Region, and a number of other OST member states can obtain images of 96% of the territory in one observation flight over this territory. The Russian aircraft can get images of only 3% of the territory of Alaska. Thus, the efficiency of observations in the Kaliningrad region is 30 times higher than in Alaska. And yet, Russia agreed to this for the preservation of the OST.

Secondly, restrictions on flights along the border of Russia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognised by Russia as independent states, were again introduced in accordance with the provision of the Treaty prohibiting flights within 10 kilometres from the border with a state that is not a party to it.

Thirdly, the restriction on one of the segments of the agreed mission plan in September 2019 was due to difficulties during the “Center 2019” military exercises in ensuring flight safety within the OST in the rapidly changing situation during the active phase of the exercises. In accordance with the Treaty, the observer party was offered an alternative time to perform a flight over the segment. However, this proposal was rejected.

Fourthly, concerning the issue of the refuelling airfield in Crimea, the Russian Federation proceeded from the need to ensure the possibility of observing any point on its territory in accordance with the Treaty. Other participants can decide whether to use this facility or not.

Thus, Russia did not commit violations of the OST, which was recognised in the reports of the US State Department on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments”, including for 2017.

Nevertheless, taking into account the concerns of the Treaty partners, Russia has prepared proposals aimed at maintaining relations with Western partners within the framework of the OST. In particular, Moscow has proposed a number of solutions to the problem of observation flights over Georgia and over 10-kilometre zones along the Russian border in the Caucasus.

But the United States and its allies, hypocritically caring about the preservation of the OST, in fact showed complete indifference to its fate and rejected these proposals. At the same time, as usual, blaming Russia for all sins.

Despite everything, last year Russia gave permission to conduct an observation flight over the Kaliningrad Region at a distance exceeding the 500-kilometre limit, and also created all the necessary conditions for a successful flight over the area where the “CAUCASUS 2020” military exercises were held.

These signals were also ignored.

In turn, Russia has repeatedly expressed serious complaints regarding the fulfilment by the United States of its obligations under the OST.

Here are just a few of them.

1) The introduction of an actual ban on observation flights over the territory of the United States by refusing to provide transit airfields necessary for Russian AN-30B aircraft.

2) Restriction of Russia’s right to observe the Aleutian Islands.

3) The actual restriction of the maximum flight range by prohibiting night technical stops at refuelling airfields, which led to exceeding the maximum load on the crew.

4) The actual reduction of the flight range over Alaska by illegally including a transit flight over the open sea.

5) Lowering of the range of observation flights over the Hawaiian Islands.

6) The introduction of height restrictions for observation aircraft that are not established by the Open Skies Treaty and contradict the ICAO recommendations.

7) Unjustified delays in issuing visas to designated personnel.

8) Non-compliance with the established deadlines for repayment of debts on observation flights.

9) Sending old aircraft in poor technical condition to perform missions in the Open Sky, which jeopardised the life and health of the assigned personnel.

All this resembles a game of marked cards. Via various tricks, up to small ones such as the late issuance of visas, the United States tried to minimise Russia’s opportunities under the Open Skies Treaty. Not shunning even the incitement of Georgia to violate the OST.

The provisions of the Treaty were systematically not observed not only by the United States, but also by its allies and NATO “partners”.

In particular:

  • France has not yet (since 2002) provided information on the procedures for conducting observation flights over remote territories, which prevents them from being carried out;
  • The United Kingdom has established altitude restrictions not provided for by the Treaty in order to prevent the use of approved configurations of Russian surveillance aircraft. In addition, it has not yet (since 2002) provided information on the procedures for conducting observation flights over remote territories, which has disrupted their conduct;
  • Canada has actually ruled out the possibility of conducting observation flights over its territory and over the territory of the United States, refusing to provide a sufficient number of intermediate landing points for Russian An-30B aircraft. Moreover, it established non-contractual restrictions on flight altitude, the purpose of which was to create obstacles to the use of approved configurations of Russian surveillance aircraft. Also, Canada does not comply with the established deadlines and procedures for issuing visas to designated personnel;
  • Poland has banned or imposed restrictions on flights over “prohibited zones” and in “dangerous” airspace. These measures also do not comply with the provisions of the Open Skies Treaty and the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO);
  • Norway has restricted the use of approved configurations of Russian surveillance aircraft.

A blatant violation of the Treaty was the actions of Georgia, which unilaterally stopped fulfilling its obligations towards Russia and banned Russian observation flights.

The list of Russia’s complaints can be continued. But the conclusion is clear. There is no way to comply with the Treaty if your vis-a-vis is a thimblerigger and considers Russia not as a partner in ensuring international security, but as a naive simpleton being robbed.

Nevertheless, we must pay tribute to Russia’s long-suffering.

Our country has expressed its principled readiness to comprehensively consider all relevant issues, including its own concerns and those of its partners, within the framework of the “small group” on the sidelines of the Open Skies Consultative Commission. Unfortunately, the United States arrogantly ignored the Russian proposals. At the same time, they insisted on the immediate consideration of their own complaints. Naturally, such a one-sided approach was unacceptable. And it wasn’t necessary. The main thing is that an excuse was found. The United States hastily left the discussion platform and subsequently used these far-fetched accusations as a pretext for taking “countermeasures”, and then – for withdrawing from the Treaty.

Since May 2020, the Russian Federation has closely followed and analysed the statements and actions within the framework of the OST of other participating states and has repeatedly warned them that its further steps depend on them. However, the “master” in the face of the United States has already decided. Therefore, Russian proposals to ensure the viability of the Treaty were ignored. Taking into account the threats to the interests of national security arising in this regard, the Russian Federation had no other choice but to initiate internal procedures for withdrawing from the Treaty.

Russia has regularly informed the United States about such procedures. In May 2020, then US presidential candidate Joe Biden sharply criticised Trump’s decision to withdraw from the OST, calling it “short-sighted”, and urged him to remain a party to the Treaty and work with allies on its problems. Taking this into account, Russia offered the new US Administration a chance to maintain the Open Skies regime, clearly indicating its intention to re-join the Treaty. In this case, the path was opened for the resumption of discussions of mutual concerns in connection with the implementation of the OST.

On the other hand, it was clearly stipulated that if the United States does not reverse its decision and does not restore its participation in the Treaty, then Russia will definitely withdraw from it.

However, on May 27, 2021, the State Department informed the Russian Foreign Ministry that Washington would not seek to re-join the Treaty. The same “arguments” that Donald Trump gave a year ago were used to justify this decision.

Russia has repeatedly saved the Treaty from collapse, sometimes to the detriment of its own interests. But it will never make concessions unilaterally to the detriment of its own security. Nevertheless, true to the principles of decency in international affairs, Russia announced at a Conference in Vienna that it would comply with its obligations under the OST until the day of withdrawal from it on December 18, 2021.

This is the essence of the events, which clearly proves that the responsibility for the very likely sunset of the Open Sky lies solely with the United States and its allies.

Who will lose the most from the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty?

States that have their own advanced technical means of verification (primarily satellites) will be able to partially fill in the information provided earlier under the Treaty. But only partially, since it is much more difficult and expensive to reconfigure satellites and, consequently, change their orbits than to send an observation plane. And the main difference from satellites is that airplanes make it possible to “look under the clouds”.

European states that do not have satellites will face big problems. They should hardly expect that the United States will generously share with them images from its satellites. A vivid confirmation of this is the refusal of the United States to provide satellite data that is extremely necessary for the investigation of the MH-17 crash.

If we look at the overall picture, it is necessary to recognise that all of today’s OST member states and, ultimately, the entire European security will be among the losers. First of all, the Treaty helps to reduce tension and prevents any misinterpretation of the military intentions of the Parties, which NATO constantly calls for. In addition, it is an important tool for contact and cooperation between armed forces, which in itself contributes to confidence-building. In light of the obvious lack of pan-European platforms for holding dialogue on military security issues, it will be very difficult to make up for the loss of this vital channel of professional communication. Finally, as a rule, less openness leads to a decrease in trust and, consequently, the level of security.

The conclusions from the story with the OST are obvious.

1. Attempts to force Russia to abandon the protection of its national interests are futile. Neither from the position of threats, nor from the position of card-sharping.

2. Western partners should understand that it is impossible to ensure their own security without taking into account the security interests of Russia and its allies.

3. Russia remains open for cooperation and is ready to work together to strengthen international security, relying on the many years of fruitful experience accumulated within the framework of the Open Skies Treaty.

Elena Panina, Director of the RUSSTRAT Institute

publication-5219Институт международных политических и экономических стратегий Русстрат