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Closed Skies: Russia Formally Quits Post-Cold War Era Confidence-building Treaty After US Withdrawal

© Sputnik / Maxim Blinov / Go to the mediabankThe Tu-214ON (Open Sky) aerial surveillance aircraft, developed by Tupolev on the basis of the Tu-214 passenger aircraft, is presented at the exhibition of aviation equipment at the Kubinka airfield at the ARMY-2016 International Military-Technical Forum.
The Tu-214ON (Open Sky) aerial surveillance aircraft, developed by Tupolev on the basis of the Tu-214 passenger aircraft, is presented at the exhibition of aviation equipment at the Kubinka airfield at the ARMY-2016 International Military-Technical Forum. - Sputnik International, 1920, 18.12.2021
Russia gave notice on its intention to withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies in June, following the May 2020 announcement by the Trump administration that it would be quitting the agreement. Signed in 1992 and stepping into force in 2002, Open Skies was one of several ‘confidence-building’ treaties made between the former Cold War adversaries.
Russia formally ceased its participation in the Treaty on Open Skies on Saturday, doing so after the failure by Washington’s European allies to give Moscow iron-clad guarantees that information collected during observation flights over Russian territory would not be handed over to the US.
In a statement released on the occasion, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that without US and Russian participation, the effectiveness of the treaty would decline dramatically.
“We respect the decision of the participating States remaining in the Treaty to continue its implementation. We wish them constructive and fruitful collaboration. However, it is obvious that without the participation of the United States and our country, the effectiveness of the Treaty on Open Skies will decrease sharply: the area of application will drop by about 80 percent, and the number of Open Skies missions planned for 2022 will severely decrease,” the ministry said.
“Full responsibility for the degradation of the agreement lies at the feet of the initiator of the collapse of the Treaty on Open Skies: the United States of America,” the ministry said. Moscow’s efforts to preserve the agreement proved for naught, falling victim “to the internal struggle of various influence groups in the United States, in which the hawks took over” and took a course toward the destruction of major security agreements with Russia, the ministry added.
The ministry stressed that Russia’s decision to withdraw from the treaty “was not taken without difficulty,” but ultimately made after weighing calculations of the implications for international security.
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During its participation in the treaty, Russia conducted 646 flights, and allowed for 449 flights to be carried out over its territory among the 1,580 total flights made. The country’s jets became the first to switch to digital surveillance equipment within the framework of the treaty.
“Decades of fruitful implementation of the Treaty on Open Skies showed that it served well as a tool for strengthening confidence and security, creating additional opportunities for an objective and unbiased assessment of the military potential and military activities of the participating States,” the ministry stressed.
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Closed Skies

The Treaty on Open Skies was negotiated, signed and ratified in 1992, and stepped into force in 2002, becoming one of numerous confidence-building measures between former Cold War adversaries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The treaty enabled member states to freely collect information about one another’s military forces and activities on a scheduled basis using specially designated surveillance aircraft.
At its peak, the treaty’s members included 34 members, among them Russia, the United States, Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia, most of NATO’s European allies, Finland, Sweden, and Canada. In May 2020, US President Donald Trump announced that Washington would be withdrawing from the agreement based on alleged “repeated violations” of its terms by Russia. Moscow dismissed the allegations, and pointed to alleged treaty violations by the US itself. Washington formally completed its withdrawal from the agreement in November 2020.
Russia initially attempted to save the treaty, saying it would stay on if the remaining states (most of them US allies in NATO) could provide Moscow with firm guarantees that they would not transfer any data obtained during overflights to the Pentagon. The other participants refused to do so.
In January 2021, Russia said that the US decision to scrap the agreement upset the balance of interests of the remaining participants, and announced plans to withdraw. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted that Moscow would immediately reconsider its decision if the incoming Biden administration moved to return the US to the full implementation of the treaty. Candidate Biden had categorised Trump’s withdrawal from Treaty on Open Skies as a “mistake,” but did nothing to rectify the decision after coming into office.
Russian President Vladimir Putin formally signed a bill renouncing the Treaty on Open Skies into law in June 2021, with Moscow giving the necessary six month notice on withdrawal to remaining members.
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Following Russia’s exit from the treaty, it remains unclear what Belarus – Russia’s ally under the Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance, will do next. Minsk has previously indicated that its continued participation will be carefully considered in consultation with Moscow. If Belarus follows Russia and withdraws, the only non-NATO powers left in the treaty will be Finland and Sweden. Earlier this month, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said his country retains "the option" to join the alliance.
The Treaty on Open Skies is one of multiple post-Cold War security agreements abandoned by Washington in over the past two decades. In 2002, the United States quit the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, prompting Moscow to dust off Soviet-era plans for the development of hypersonic weapons systems (the first of which became operational in 2017). In 2019, the Trump administration pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – which banned the development, production and fielding of missiles in the 500 to 5,500 km range. In 2020, Trump threatened to let the clock run out on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – the last remaining major nuclear agreement between Russia and the United States, unless China’s nuclear arsenal was included. The Biden administration reversed Trump’s position on New START at the last minute, agreeing to extend it by five years in January 2021.
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