100 seconds to midnight, i.e., until a nuclear catastrophe. That’s what the Doomsday Clock is currently showing. At the dawn of the Cold War, this symbolic gauge of world security was set by the fathers of the American atom bomb. On May 21, the chances of its hand moving even closer to midnight rose with Donald Trump’s announcement that America was pulling out of the Treaty on Open Skies. What are we risking?
In December, Washington will withdraw from the Open Skies treaty. This is now the third agreement to fall apart out of a series of documents that ended the Cold War. What was the function of this treaty?
Signed in 1992, the treaty allows NATO members and European countries of the former USSR to make surveillance flights over each other’s territory. Signatory countries are entitled to fly any route they choose for observation. The treaty allows them to ensure that no neighbours are preparing to attack.
Washington claims that its withdrawal from the agreement is due the Kremlin abusing its trust.
“Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery […] to target critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe […] Russia has, therefore, weaponised the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat,” Michael Pompeo, US Secretary of State, said.
Additionally, Moscow has restricted flight routes over Kaliningrad and banned flights over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it has declared as independent states. The Kremlin has also offered to let Western planes refuel in annexed Crimea.
But the reasons behind America’s withdrawal from the treaty may be even deeper-seated. Washington no longer sees Europe as a priority or sets any store by agreements left over from the Cold War.
“Their idea is to get rid of treaties that limit or don’t suit them, and they’re prepared to negotiate new treaties, but only on their own terms,” Nikolai Sokov, a representative of Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, said.
The Kremlin has no plans to pull out of the treaty, but some analysts are tending to think that the days of “Open Skies” are numbered. In Russia, there are already calls to stop NATO countries from sharing imagery with Washington, but America’s allies will never agree to this.
In short – no. But suspicion between Russia and Western countries will definitely grow.
The Open Skies Treaty is a means of building confidence. The flights aim to confirm what is already known, and intel is gathered by military satellites, although not everyone has them.
The Baltic States have none, for example. If the treaty collapses, they will lose their ability to rapidly acquire information on their neighbours. Ukraine will also be affected. In 2014, the Open Skies Treaty allowed Kyiv and Western countries to legally gather information on the Russian invasion.
Washington’s unilateral decision has puzzled its NATO allies. European countries are glad of ‘Open Skies’ as a symbol of cooperation and a guarantee of peace – and very few of those remain.
The danger of nuclear war in Europe was formerly dispelled by five perestroika agreements.
The first was the INF Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. The USSR and US decommissioned 2,700 missiles capable of delivering nuclear strikes in a matter of minutes.
In 1990, 33 states signed the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures. The countries pledged to warn one another about military exercises, and open up their military units for regular inspections.
Also in 1990, the Eastern Bloc and NATO countries signed the CFE Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, reducing the likelihood of confrontation in the heart of the continent. Both blocs pledged to withdraw tanks from Germany and Poland, and reduce armies in neighbouring regions.
In July 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush Sr signed the START I Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, leaving both countries with 6,000 nuclear warheads each.
The final agreement of the era was the Treaty on Open Skies, signed in March 1992. Today, almost all these agreements are either dormant or on the verge of falling apart.
Russia was the first to withdraw from the agreements when it stopped implementing the Conventional Armed Forces Treaty in 2015. Eight years earlier, in response to new countries joining NATO, the Kremlin refused to reduce its military presence in Kaliningrad.
In 2019, the US pulled out of the INF Treaty. Washington accused the Kremlin of producing 9M729 “Screwdriver” missiles banned by the agreement.
A year later, the Open Skies Treaty began to fall apart at the initiative of the United States. The new START treaty limiting nuclear warheads (to succeed the Gorbachev-era version) will expire in February 2021. Washington is demanding that China be involved in negotiations to extend the treaty.
The Vienna Document remains in force, but Moscow refused military inspectors entry into Crimea in 2014, and the Kremlin is against expanding the agreement.
“There is a major risk of some totally accidental, unintentional clash escalating into a full-scale war. But even the most limited non-nuclear conflicts are still overshadowed by nuclear weapons,” Nikolai Sokov stressed.
Russia is violating the arms-control treaties that prevent it from maintaining a grip on the post-Soviet region. Moscow’s arsenal threatens both its neighbours and the West, which it again regards as an enemy.
Washington is breaking the treaties in order to compete with China. Beijing is not bound by any Cold War-era agreements and possesses medium-range missiles that the US is currently unable to match. The arms-control system is collapsing, so the nuclear arsenals will be growing in both Asia and Europe.
Treaties signed during the decline of the USSR have kept Europe out of an arms race for twenty years. But all five documents may soon cease to be operational. First Russia, and now the US, have deemed the arms-control system too restrictive. Moscow wants to gain a foothold in Europe, while Washington wants the same in Asia. Although there is no risk of a nuclear conflict just yet, there will be more and more weapons in our region.
The explainer was part of Belsat TV news program That Way (Vot Tak). The episode was aired on 3 June, 2020.
Alyaksandr Papko, belsat.eu