Open Skies Treaty: History, significance, Implications

The USA-Russia relations received another blow on May 21, 2020, when US President Donald Trump announced that the US will be pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty (OST), a major arms control measure that aided transparency and confidence-building among 34 countries, especially between the US and Russia. The pulling out from OST by US was next in line after withdrawal from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty last year by the US. Though it seems to be caused by increasing distrust between the two countries on the face of it, it is in line with the transactional approach of diplomacy by President Trump.


What is the Open Skies Treaty?

·         It is an arms control treaty between 34 countries which was first signed in 1992 and came into effect in 2002.

·         It has 34 members as of now. The 35th member, Kyrgyzstan has signed the treaty but is yet to ratify it.

·         India is not a party to the OST.

·         The concept underlying the OST is aerial reconnaissance flights by unarmed aircraft over each other’s territories as a means of promoting confidence, trust, and stability between potential adversaries.

·         It was first proposed by former US president Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 as a means to de-escalate tensions during the Cold War. It was not accepted by the then USSR because it saw it as a covert measure to spy on the Soviet Union.

·         It was revived in 1989 by then US president George Bush (Senior) when he proposed the creation of an Open Skies regime. It was an expansion of Eisenhower’s concept.

·         Under the new Open Skies treaty, the participants to the treaty agreed on voluntarily opening their airspace on a reciprocal basis which will permit the overflight of their territory in order to strengthen confidence and transparency with respect to their military activities.

·          In December 1989, the participants of the North Atlantic Council Meeting (Brussels) issued the document named “Open Skies: Basic Elements” calling for the establishment of an Open Skies regime for members of NATO and Warsaw pact.

·         It was intended to promote openness and transparency, build confidence, and facilitate verification of arms control and disarmament agreements.

What are the treaty provisions?

·         The treaty establishes the Open Skies regime for the conduct of short-notice, unarmed, observational flights over the territories of other state parties.

·         The Treaty gives each State Party the right to conduct observation flights over their territory. There is an obligation to accept the overflights.

·         The Treaty establishes a “passive quota” which means the total number of observation flights that each State Party is obliged to accept over its territory.

·         It also establishes an “active quota,” which means the number of observation flights that a State Party shall have the right to conduct over the territory of each of the other States Parties.

·         The Treaty obligates the observation flights using designated observation aircraft, which could belong to an observing State Party or be provided by the host state.

·         A country can undertake aerial imaging over the host state only after giving notice 72 hours before, i.e. short notice and sharing its exact flight path 24 hours before.

·         The observational flight may survey any part of the territory of the host country and there can be no territory barred form surveillance.

·         The information gathered, such as on troop movements, military exercises, and Missiles 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.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

How the verification and compliance of the treaty is done?

·         The Treaty establishes a commission named Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC).

·         It conducts its business by consensus.

·         The OSCC is in charge of the questions related to compliance with the Treaty, and seeks to resolve ambiguities and differences of interpretation should they occur, consider applications for accession to the Treaty, and take care of technical and administrative measures.

Why the US wants to withdraw from the treaty?

·         The US has accused Russia of over a decade of non-compliance with OST protocols, blaming Russia for obstructing surveillance flights over its territory.

·         The US contends that Russia restricts the distance that observation flights can fly over the exclave of Kaliningrad and bars flights along the Russian border with the Georgian-breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

·         The US has also cited undue restrictions on flights over eastern Ukraine Crimea which Russia is trying to grab.

·         The US has been increasingly concerned that Russia is using its overflights over US critical infrastructure to develop actionable intelligence and possibly mapping it for possible future offensive cyber operations.

·          In 2017, an overflight request over the Trump golf estate in Bedford (New Jersey) raised concerns in the White House. This led the US to conclude that Russia was converting the transparency measure into an intimidation measure by weaponizing it.

What is Russia’s Stand on it?

·         Russia has categorically denied the allegations of misuse of treaty every time they have been raised.

·         It said that the US decision to withdraw from OST would erode global security by making it more difficult for governments to interpret the intentions of other nations.

·         The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the treaty helps de-escalation of the situation and avoids wrong interpretation.

·         It also said that while an extensive fleet of spy satellites could help the US compensate for a lack of observational flights, breakdown of OST will hurt the interests of other countries, and security in Europe would therefore suffer.

·         Russia said made it clear that the limits on flights over Kaliningrad were permissible under the treaty’s terms and the US has also imposed sweeping restrictions on observational flights over Alaska.

·         The treaty limits flights near borders with non-state parties and the Russians argue that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are independent nations, a position few other countries recognize.

·         It has maintained that it intends to fully follow all the obligations and rights under the treaty so long as the treaty is in force.

What is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty?

·         It is a Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty between the US and the Soviet Union which came into existence in 1987.

·         According to this treaty, the two nations agreed to eliminate their stock of the intermediate range and shorter (medium) range land-based missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.

·          It didn’t, though, cover sea-launched missiles.

·         With rising issues between the US and Russia, the US withdrew from the treaty on 2nd August 2019.

What is the New START Treaty?

·         The New START treaty is a successor treaty to the Start Framework of 1991 that limits both side strategic delivery vehicles at 1600 and 6000 warheads.

·         The US is concerned that the treaty will limit its strategic preparation with respect to China and Russia.

·         The treaty also suffers from verification inadequacies according to experts.

Are there any strategic angles to the US move?

·         The decision to withdraw from the OST comes against the backdrop of the US walking out of the INF in August 2019 and The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty much earlier in 2001.

·         While Russia and other countries have upgraded both aircraft and the sensors used on the surveillance aircraft but upgradation of the same was held back by the US. The reason partly is the US being able to obtain equally good or better data from its satellites. As of now, no country can match the US’s satellite capabilities.

·         For the US, the OST is not particularly useful as an intelligence-gathering tool, but the reality is that it was always intended as a confidence-building and transparency measure. So, as the tensions between the US and Russia grow, the US has become more interested in restricting transparency over its territory.

·         Experts believe that the US is increasingly growing anxious over restrictions placed by the arms control treaty in the context of the bygone cold war while a new threat in the form of China has already emerged.

·         The New START agreement is up for renewal in 2021. Given the US attitude towards arms control treaties, it is possible that the US will not renew this agreement too.

·         The feeling appears to be that these various US-Russia treaties serve to limit the US ability to compete effectively with China because China is not bound by the same agreements.

·         US might be wanting to include China under these arms control treaties to bring its arms preparedness under global supervision.

·         President Trump has hinted at a renewed OST with different terms. He might be eyeing China’s inclusion in that intended new treaty.

·          But China has maintained a clear stance that it has no intention to join any arms control measures with the US and Russia.

What are the implications of the treaty for the rest of the parties and the rest of the world?

·         With US withdrawal, Russia will also most probably withdraw from the treaty. With few NATO members and neutral states, the treaty will lose significance.

·         The rest of the countries lack satellite surveillance as good as the US. The death of the treaty could mean increasing the trust deficit in already increasingly aggressive regimes in Europe and the rest of the world.

·         After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action withdrawal, the global arms control remains in shambles with no converging points. The US also does not seem to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty.

·         According to some commentators, this also reflects a decrease in the US standing as the predominant factor in global affairs and the US’s failure to coming to terms with it. The US ‘s withdrawal from UN agencies and recent threats to withdraw support to the World Health Organization is a case in point.

·         It could well be connected to the US Presidential elections and President Trump’s attempt to distance himself from alleged Russian closeness which has haunted him as a President throughout his term.

What are the stakes for India in this scenario?

·         As India is not a party to the treaty, ostensibly it does not concern with the treaty’s future.

·         But as a nation with a constitutional mandate of promoting a peaceful world has a stake in a peaceful, multilateral global order.

·         India shares historic good relations with Russia and is increasingly trying to balance its relations with Russia with its growing closeness with the US.

·         With strategic agreements with the US, India has a stake in good and peaceful relations between the US and Russia. Otherwise, it will have to walk a tight rope in global affairs.

·         If China agrees to come under an arms control treaty, it will be beneficial to India as it will bring China under strategic obligation. This is important on the backdrop of recent animosities between India and China.

·         China will possibly remain aggressive in the near future and is a perennial threat to India’s territorial sovereignty. It’s coming under a global rule-based regime is an important positive for India.

·         In the backdrop of these interests, the future of the OST and New START treaty further must be followed keenly by India.

What is the way forward?

·         As the responsible global powers, it is important that the US and Russia come to the table and have a dialogue to sort out differences.

·         US should not give up on an order that has stabilized with time. 

·         The silver lining is that till now, other member countries have not joined the band with the US and fully intend to follow the treaty. They still feel that they can benefit from the oversight on Russian territory.

·         Arms control treaties are in line with the post-world war commitments of global disarmament. They are not only arms control regimes but also a symbol of global commitment towards a world free form Weapons of mass destruction. 

·         A new treaty under different circumstances where all the major powers agree on some basic rules will be a welcome instance.

·         It needs to be seen if the Trump administration goes forward with its intentions.


The global disarmament measures are an important confidence-building measures to keep the world peaceful and away from historic arms races which have culminated in destructive wars. The OST is important in this context and the world powers must understand that in the backdrop of the existential threat of climate change, we cannot afford a global order which sits on the ticking time bomb of distrust and unpredictability.

Practice question for Mains

What is the Open Skies Treaty (OST)? What are the implications of the possible US withdrawal from OST?



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