Russian Withdrawal From Open Skies Treaty Will Lead to Arms Race in Outer Space
Monday, January 18, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Changes are happening in the geopolitics of air operations. On November 22 of last year, Washington formally exited the Open Skies Treaty – an agreement that provides for the right to carry out and the obligation to accept observation flights over a member’s national territory, to transmit control of its military activities and strategic installations. The agreement included US, European NATO members and Russia, which contributed to ensuring peace. But, with the departure of the US, the agreement lost part of its reason for existing, which led Moscow, on January 15, 2021, to follow the American way and start the process of exiting the treaty.
Although the American exit was reason enough for Russia to abandon the agreement, Moscow did not make this decision automatically. First, the Russian government asked NATO member countries not to share data collected on Russia within the sphere of the Treaty with the US, considering the fact that, with its withdrawal from the agreement, Washington is legally out of the information sharing scheme. However, the reaction of NATO countries to the request was disappointing to the Russians: there was simply no response. And, as expected, Moscow interpreted the silence as a negative response to the appeal. Fearing that their data would be illegally exposed to the US and without sources providing American data to Moscow, the Russians decided to withdraw from the Treaty.
Without the US and Russia, the Open Skies Treaty becomes a purely decorative figure on the international arena. The agreement currently includes 31 European countries, Canada, and Turkey. Although there are a large number of members, it becomes unnecessary to establish policies of reciprocity and data sharing between these countries when they are all reasonably aligned – except Turkey.
This weakens the very concept of “open skies” – an ideal of international relations that advocates the liberalization of rules and regulations on the international aviation industry. This concept is more strongly defended and developed in the commercial aviation, but it is still very weak when applied to military aviation. The Open Skies Treaty was the greatest achievement of international society in this sense so far, as it managed to bring together the two largest military powers on the planet – which have conflicting visions, projects, and ideologies – in the same cooperation agreement. However, once again, Washington and the entire of NATO prioritized their military plans to international cooperation and this led to the failure of a major treaty. The trend, from now on, is that, one by one, all the remaining countries leave the agreement – perhaps some will stay, but it will be only those that have no military intention and that conform to a peripheral position in global geopolitics, which will continue to make the agreement a purely decorative document.
However, a question remains: what will be the Russian strategy to control NATO’s activities from now on? Perhaps, with the fall in the power of aerial observation, the answer lies in space technology. With the absence of surveillance flights, Russia must invest more and more in its observation satellites to obtain military data. This means that, most likely, space technology and the satellite industry will now take on an even more central role in Moscow, becoming an urgent state priority.
In the same vein, the Russian decision will have an impact on American plans. When Trump decided to leave the Treaty, the Democrats strongly disapproved his decision and considered it imprudent, since, according to this party’s interpretation, the US would be less secure and more vulnerable outside the agreement and without the data on Russian activities. Experts around the world predicted that one of Biden’s first measures would be to try to return to the Treaty. This will certainly not happen after the Russian exit.
Now, the Biden Administration has no reason to try to return to the Treaty, which means that Washington will invest more heavily in aerospace surveillance measures – certainly through partnerships between the state and the private sector, considering the overwhelming growth of space corporations in the US. Russia and the US will create increasingly sophisticated methods of espionage through space technology and this will lead to the escalation of the arms race in space. Few countries in the world have sufficient technological capacity to engage in disputes in this sector, which makes Europe even more vulnerable.
Perhaps, this situation leads to a revitalization of Europe’s relations with the US and to a growth of NATO, but it would make Europe insecure about Russia. On the other hand, better relations with Russia will not please Biden. In this scenario, the Europeans will have to choose between undertaking a wide militarization process in order to guarantee their protection amid tensions between the US and Russia or choosing to establish good relations with both sides and assume a strategic neutrality amid tensions.
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