European Security’s Closing Skies

What will happen to European security with the United States withdrawing from and Russia interfering with trust-based security? One strategy that could alleviate the current conflict would be a deeper discussion of history.

At the end of last May the US announced its official intention to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is a significant part of Europe’s multilateral arms control infrastructure. The main reason for US planned withdrawal is disagreement over what Russia allows other states to observe through the agreement.

US actions are not helpful for the post-Cold War European security environment based on dialogue, trust, and transparency as security building measures.

Arms-control experts Alexandra Bell (USA), Wolfgang Richter (Germany), and Andrei Zagorski (Russia) have raised the alarm regarding US withdrawal and the future of the Treaty on Open Skies stating: ”across Europe, leaders should realize the time to panic is now”. They see the conventional arms control system in Europe disintegrating due to a lack of political interest from the United States and Russia.

”Across Europe, leaders should realize the time to panic is now.”

Open Skies is a relatively undiscussed treaty in Finnish public debates. Assistant Professor Tommi Koivula at the Finnish National Defense University and Dr. Katariina Simonen noted in 2017 that there are few people with expert knowledge able to serve decision makers and contribute to public debates on arms control in Europe.

US proposed withdrawal from Open Skies raises many important questions for citizens and decision makers, such as how we arrived to the current state of affairs and how to proceed. Now is a good time to reflect on the weakening situation surrounding European security.


Open Skies and Post-Cold War Security

The Treaty on Open Skies, signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, permits joint aerial observation missions over signatory states’ territories. Each signatory has the right to conduct a set amount of yearly unarmed, reconnaissance flights on a short notice over the territory of another signatory country to collect data on military forces and activities.

Flights are generally joint endeavors, giving signatory countries the opportunity to plan and carry out missions with military counterparts from other signatory countries. As such the treaty has value as a form of cooperation and confidence building in Europe, rather than serving only as intelligence gathering.

Proposals for agreements of this type originate already from the 1950s, but serious negotiations only took place during and after the perestroika/glasnost period at the end of the Cold War. Open Skies was part of a significant troika of multilateral arms controls treaties signed at the end of the Cold War.

Signatory countries have the opportunity to plan and carry out missions with military counterparts from other signatory countries.

The first agreement, signed in 1990 as part of the Conference on Security and Cooperation (CSCE – OSCE after 1994) process, was the Conventional Arms Forces Treaty in Europe (CFE). This treaty intended to limit the number of troops in Europe. The second, also signed as part of the CSCE process in 1990, was the Vienna Document, which promotes the exchange of military information.

Open Skies is the troika’s third treaty. It was originally envisioned to help build trust between NATO, the USSR, and Warsaw Pact member states. Today the treaty pursues a similar goal between 34 individual signatory states, including Finland.

Although Open Skies is formally an independent treaty body, it is closely related to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) because of its basic philosophy of openness. Open Skies, alongside the OSCE, is a significant pillar of the post-Cold War European security order.


The Slow Decay of Trust Based Security

The first of the three agreements, the Conventional Arms Forces Treaty, began a slow death in 1999  when Russia refused to fully implement sections requiring the removal of Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova. Russia unilaterally suspended participation in the treaty in 2007.

The Vienna Document successfully underwent updates in 1992, 1994, and 1999. Negotiations stalled in 2016 when OSCE participating States could not come to consensus on new updates to the 2011 version. The old agreement is still in use.

These disagreements are hardly new, but part of a growing trend of Russian dissatisfaction with post-Cold War arms control regimes and the European security system in general.

At the 2019 December OSCE Ministerial Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that there is no sense in updating the Vienna Document due to Western countries’ aggressive containment of Russia.

Similar disagreements over how to extend or maintain old arms control treaties have also affected Open Skies. These disagreements are hardly new, but part of a growing trend of Russian dissatisfaction with post-Cold War arms control regimes and the European security system in general.


Is the Spirit of the Agreement or the Letter the Real Problem?

As early as October 2019, US officials hinted at unilateral withdrawal from Open Skies. US reasons ranged from the cost of updating US Open Skies aircraft to fears of Russia using the flights to map out critical US infrastructure.

The United States’ official rhetoric focuses mainly on Russian violations of the treaty, such as Russia’s refusal of Open Skies flights within 10 km of the Russian- Georgian border and a 500 km flight length limit on observation flights into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The US considers these limitations to be treaty violations.

US diplomats and experts provide a slightly different picture from official rhetoric. Experts for example argue that Russia could easily retrieve sufficient information through its own satellites, rather than rely on Open Skies flights.

James Gilmore, US Ambassador to the OSCE, mentioned in March that there was diplomatic progress on getting Russia to drop some of their opposition – specifically to observation of a Russian military exercise and flights around Kaliningrad.

Legal experts also argue that official US concerns mainly relate to demanding Russia to honor the spirit, rather than just the exact wording, of the treaty.


America and Negotiating Disarmament with Russia – All or Nothing

Regardless of these counterpoints, US intent to withdraw from the treaty highlights a continued policy shift under the administration of President Donald Trump. In 2019 the US also exited the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty due to the introduction of unsanctioned missiles by Russia.

Managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Michael Singh believes that the Trump administration should hold out extending additional arms agreements, such as the new START Treaty, due to expire in 2021, to influence Russian behavior in other areas of security policy.

In line with these trends, US withdrawal from Open Skies can be interpreted as an attempt to force Russia back to the negotiating table on US terms. Quoted in The New York Times, President Trump stated: ”I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal”.

One could argue that the style of US withdrawal from Open Skies plays right into Moscow’s hands.

Secondly, in renegotiating arms control agreements, the US would like to increase China’s involvement. The US seems to need Russia’s help in coaxing Chinese participation. In other words, the disinterest in – and the dismantling of – the European security framework may serve larger American interests elsewhere, with little or no attention given to the potential impact on European allies.

One could argue that the style of US withdrawal from Open Skies plays right into Moscow’s hands. By simple staying in the treaty, the Kremlin wins a diplomatic victory (however small) and maintains an image of a participant willing to negotiate. Minimal Russian concessions made in early 2020 and European leader’s disapproval of the US withdrawal reinforce this image and paint US actions as callous.


Finland and a Game with Rules

Head of the Political Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland Mikko Kinnunen stated that Open Skies is one of the most effective existing arms control agreements in Europe. He sees US withdrawal as an inconvenience specifically for the international rule-based security framework, which Finland favors.

Finnish Institute of International Affairs Senior Researcher Matti Pesu stated that for Finland Open Skies is a piece of ”European security architecture that has brought transparency, stability and trust to Europe”.

Even Finnish President Sauli Niinistö commented in 2020 that US negotiating strategy with Russia has bad optics. According to Niinistö, arms control continues to be a number one priority for Finland in international politics. The threat of losing existing conventional arms controls in Europe – or the rules of the game – is now more salient due to contemporary US negotiating tactics.

This interpretation, however, is not without its problems. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, the European security framework is hardly based on transparency, stability, and trust, or even rules.

Philip Remler of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that Russia uses the Western dream of a ”Europe whole and Free” to legitimize the Kremlin’s management of its territorial interests in the post-Soviet Space. Former Finnish diplomat and CSCE Ambassador Jaakko Iloniemi also described Europe in 2015 as ”a Europe of hostile military acts”.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, the European security framework is hardly based on transparency, stability, and trust, or even rules.

Russia’s current foreign policy is a threat to a system based on trust, transparency, and respect for sovereignty. The Trump Administration’s general negotiating strategy towards Russia also counteracts this vision of European security. The disintegration process of a treaty/rules-based security framework has been simmering for over two decades. The Trump Administration’s negotiating strategy only applies more stress to existing wounds.

In this view, Finnish interests in Open Skies could be reformulated to be the goal that European security architecture should be based on transparency, stability, and trust. In this vision of European security, multilateral diplomacy through the OSCE is crucial.


Taking Control of the Future

Bonnie Jenkins, a member of the original US delegation that negotiated Open Skies in 1992, recently argued that US proposed withdrawal from Open Skies marks the end of an era. That being, an era of imaginative thinking that allowed for creative, multilateral solutions to a variety of threats facing European security.

If Europe, and not only Finland, wants to retain imaginative thinking in European security, or simply security architecture based on transparency and trust, decision makers need to address the historical roots of current conflict.

Numerous experts assert that different narratives of the past should be openly discussed to pinpoint elements that may negatively contribute to contemporary conflict. For example, an OSCE Panel of Eminent Persons report from 2015 argued that clashing historic understandings of the post-Cold War order are both a cause and symptom of ongoing conflict.

Clashing historic understandings of the post-Cold War order are both a cause and symptom of ongoing conflict.

This report offered concrete recommendations for reassuring European security. Suggestions included creating new forums for dialogue on security issues, as well as updating the Vienna Document and Treaty on Open Skies.

In 2017, the OSCE Network of Think Tanks undertook a project to discuss different understandings of the end of the Cold War. The project argued that it would be fruitful to insert these ‘historical understanding’ projects into OSCE security dialogues in the future. Unfortunately, the project did not attract significant political interest from OSCE leaders to combine discussions of the past with direct arms control negotiations.

Discussions on the past should not be relegated to academia.

In 2020, we see the opposite of recommendations from 2015 and 2017 occurring. Alternative strategies to support trust-based security are needed to address the dismantling of European security. For example:

1) Discussions on the past should not be relegated to academia. They need to be raised to a significantly higher policy level where decision makers are in conversation with each other about why the past might influence their current policy of confrontation. As mentioned in previous OSCE expert reports, OSCE forums such as the Structured Dialogue could be a good place to start.

2) Similar to new networks such as the Cooperative Security Initiative, projects of increasing historical understanding, with support of experts and academics, should be reconsidered to assist traditional arms control discussions.

It might behoove European leaders to organize these efforts before meaningful dialogue in multilateral organizations such as the OSCE ceases altogether.


Bradley Reynolds is a doctoral student in political history at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute and an associated researcher with the Academy of Finland project The Baltic Sea Region and the Post-Cold War Hysteresis (BALTRAN). He researches international history and decision makers’ memories in Finland and Russia, specifically looking at European security in the 1990s and the CSCE from a transnational perspective.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top