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Biden's grounding of Open Skies treaty is folly amid Russian tensions

And it's a head-scratcher, since his campaign once called Trump's withdrawal of the Cold War agreement 'short-sighted.'

Analysis | Europe

The Biden administration had an opportunity to salvage the Treaty on Open Skies (OS), but they have chosen to let it die. 

The U.S. had withdrawn from the treaty under the previous administration in November 2020, and there was a chance that Biden could have rejoined it. Last month, the State Department announced that the U.S. would not rejoin the treaty, and the Russian government has taken steps to exit the treaty as well. 

The exit of the two largest states from Open Skies marks its demise for all intents and purposes. The decision represents a reversal from Biden’s criticism of Trump’s withdrawal, which he had previously characterized as “short-sighted.” The administration’s bizarre decision to bury the treaty makes it less likely that the U.S. and Russia will be able to make any progress on a new arms control agenda, and it casts a pall over the upcoming Geneva summit on June 16. Arms control experts reacted to Biden’s decision with dismay and bewilderment.

Once again, Biden has allowed a reckless Trump decision to stand for the wrong reasons, and he has undermined U.S. diplomacy with Russia before it even begins.

The Open Skies Treaty permitted unarmed reconnaissance overflights by member states over the territory of other members. Though the idea for mutual overflights was first suggested by President Eisenhower in 1955, the treaty was created at the end of the Cold War as a mechanism for maintaining stability and increasing transparency among its members. The U.S. and its allies could monitor where Russia was stationing and moving its forces on short notice, and Russia had the same ability to monitor U.S. and allied forces. Open Skies was a modest arms control agreement, but it was an important one that benefited the United States and our European allies and provided our government with information about Russian troop positions and movements that it could then share with all other members. 

Bottom line, the United States is worse off without it, and Europe is less secure than it was.

For almost twenty years since it went into effect in 2002, the treaty allowed the U.S. to gather information about Russian forces, and the U.S. then provided what it learned to smaller countries that did not have satellites or the ability to conduct their own overflights. Almost all overflights have been over Europe, so the idea that the treaty disadvantages Washington is nonsense. As Moritz Kütt observed after studying the overflight data, “the Americans fly way more often over Russia than the Russians fly over them.” 

The treaty was a good example of a mutually beneficial multilateral agreement that has helped to reassure and secure European allies. It is exactly the sort of agreement that one would have expected Biden to try to revive after four years of Trump, so it is baffling that the administration has instead chosen to let it collapse while reciting Trump-era talking points about Russian violations.

Open Skies was designed to build trust among its members, and it aimed to prevent miscommunication and confusion from leading to unwanted escalation and possible war. Russian violations of the treaty deserved to be taken seriously, but they were not so severe that it warranted scrapping the agreement. The strongest case against the Biden administration’s decision to let the treaty die comes from Biden when he was a candidate attacking Trump’s decision to withdraw. 

Last May, Biden said: “These Russian violations should be addressed not by withdrawing from the Treaty, but by seeking to resolve them through the Treaty’s implementation and dispute mechanism.” 

This was exactly the right position to take at the time, so it makes no sense that Russian violations now require the U.S. to abandon the treaty. “Without us, the Treaty could crumble,” Biden warned. Now that Biden is president, he has stood by and watched it disintegrate. Biden chided Trump for walking away from the treaty, and he urged him to reverse course. Now his own words should be turned against him: “He should remain in the Open Skies Treaty and work with allies to confront and resolve problems regarding Russia’s compliance.” Given the chance to do just that, Biden whiffed.

His decision stands in sharp contrast to its willingness to undo several other Trump decisions to withdraw from multilateral agreements. It also comes at a time when having the ability to conduct overflights above Russia would be quite useful in light of Russia’s recent military buildup on the Ukrainian border. Michael Krepon commented on how valuable it would have been to have the option of an overflight in April, but Trump’s withdrawal decision made that impossible: 

“This would be a good time for another extraordinary overflight. Demonstrate U.S. leadership. Load up a brand-spanking new U.S. Open Skies Treaty plane with observers from six or so friends and allies. Demonstrate solidarity. You know the drill. Except that this is not going to happen. There are no new U.S. Open Skies planes and the Trump administration handed Putin the gratuitous gift of withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty.”  

Incredibly, the State Department cited Russia’s recent buildup as a reason to give up on the treaty: “Further, Russia’s behavior, including its recent actions with respect to Ukraine, is not that of a partner committed to confidence-building.” The point of having a treaty like this is to be able to keep an eye on what all members are doing, so the administration’s argument falls apart on this point, too. 

The U.S. has expressed interest in pursuing further arms control talks with Russia in the hopes of hammering out a more expansive agreement that would cover Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons. The refusal to rejoin Open Skies hardly gives Moscow an incentive to make the effort to negotiate a new accord. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to the administration’s announcement by calling the decision not to rejoin a “political mistake.” Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, said, “We gave them a good chance, which they did not take.” 

The U.S. has shown in just the last few years how easily one administration can tear up longstanding, successful agreements with Russia. If there is no prospect of reviving these agreements under different leadership, why would Russia go to the trouble of negotiating a more ambitious arms control treaty when it cannot even count on existing agreements to be preserved? Put another way, if the Biden administration cannot even manage the layup of rejoining a successful, already ratified treaty, what chance do they have of negotiating a new, much more complex and politically risky treaty?

Arms control with Russia appears to be on its last legs. This is coming at an especially bad time when U.S.-Russian relations are as bad as they have ever been in the post-Cold War period. Arms control has been one of the few areas where the U.S. and Russia have cooperated successfully, and even this seems to be failing as a result of general anti-Russian sentiment and hard-line resistance to all treaties. Refusing to rejoin Open Skies gives the John Boltons and Tom Cottons of the world what they want at the expense of U.S. and allied interests.  

The Boeing RC-135 is a family of large reconnaissance aircraft built by Boeing and used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force to support theater and national level intelligence gathering. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)
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