Wrecking Arms Control

Berlin blames Russia for US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty and rejects own disarmament initiatives.

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed his "regrets" at the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty while explicitly refusing to make its own disarmament initiatives. Last week, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control mechanism. As usual, Washington blames Russia for its move. The German foreign ministry follows suit. These allegations, however, have no "factual basis," according to an expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. The US government threatens to go even a step further and not only withdraw from the next arms control treaty - the "New Start" agreement - but also to break the globally respected moratorium on nuclear testing. Meanwhile, the German government rejects demands that Germany should renounce "nuclear sharing" as its own contribution toward disarmament. This is not an option because it would be "convenient for Russia", according to the justifications in commentaries.

The Open Skies Treaty

The Treaty on Open Skies, concluded in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, had been signed and ratified by 34 countries, most notably by Russia and the USA, but also by nearly all European NATO members. The treaty permits nations to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other's territories with the number of flights depending on the size of the respective country. The USA and Russia for example are each allowed to conduct 42 flights annually and Germany twelve. The flights not only facilitate verification of compliance with arms control agreements but also the observation of selective military activities. Between March and July 2014, at the height of the Ukraine crisis, for example, western countries conducted 22 flights over western Russia and Ukraine.[1] A special aspect of Open Skies observation flights is the fact that teams of both parties - of the observed and the observer country - are onboard and share their findings, thus, at least, potentially, facilitating a consensual assessment of facts. More than 1,500 observation flights have been conducted since 2002, of which around 500 over Russian and Belorussian territory by the USA (200) and other NATO countries (300), according to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Russia has only conducted 70 flights over US territory, many more over European NATO-member countries, which are of central importance for preparations for potential western aggression.

Unfounded Allegations

The allegations against Russia, raised by the Trump administration to justify its withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, have no "factual basis," according to SWP.[2] On the one hand, there are disagreements regarding Russia's southern border. In 2008, Moscow had recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and has been applying the treaties stipulation that observation flights must respect a ten-kilometer distance to non-party states. Observation flights are thus subject to restrictions along Russia's southern border. As a result, Georgia suspended the Open Skies Treaty with Russia in 2012. The conflict has not been resolved. However, SWP points out that the sensors being used in the observation flights are "extremely powerful," which is why the 10 km zone is "of little significance for the acquisition of intelligence." On the other hand, Russia has restricted the flights over its Kaliningrad exclave, since Poland had prolonged its flight for several hours over that 15,000 sq km region, forcing closure of the airspace for other flights. Since then, flights over Kaliningrad are not allowed to exceed 500 km. Such a limitation is usual. The Czech Republic only allows 600 km flights, Germany, 1,200, reports SWP. As revenge, the USA, according to the think tank, "restricted Russia's flights over Alaska to such an extent" that Russian planes "can no longer fly over Hawaii and the other Pacific islands."

"An Unprecedented Nuclear Arms Race"

The abrogation of the treaty, which takes effect in six months, has no operational disadvantages for the United States. On the one hand, experts consider US satellite reconnaissance is no less efficient than Open Skies flights; and on the other, SWP believes that Washington will be able to benefit from European NATO countries' reconnaissance flights. "Though the [Open Skies] Treaty forbids it, the allies regularly share their accumulated information with one another."[3] Russia, on the other hand, will only be able to observe US troops in Europe, no longer those on US territory, which provides a further favorable imbalance on in the scales of political power on behalf of the USA. More serious, above all, is that Germany's most important NATO partner is continuing to wreck the global arms control system. Following US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, banning the land-based intermediate range missiles and the abrogation of the Open Skies Treaty, the Trump administration is now considering not prolonging the New Start Treaty, reducing the number of strategic offensive nuclear weapons, next year, as had been originally scheduled. Last week, it was also reported that Washington was recently mulling carrying out a nuclear test, thereby breaking the respective moratorium being upheld by all nuclear powers except North Korea. It remains unknown, whether a decision has been made. Critics are warning that this step could unleash "an unprecedented nuclear arms race."[4]

"Pressure on Moscow"

To divert attention from the fact that its main military ally is pushing the world ever closer to the brink of a nuclear abyss, Berlin supports the US allegations blaming Russia, as it had earlier, in the case of the INF Treaty.[5] Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for example, has been quoted saying that although the abrogation of the treaty is "unjustified," there are, however, "difficulties in fulfilling the treaty from the Russian side," which is why "pressure on Moscow" must be exerted.[6] Maas also signed a declaration alongside his counterparts from 10 other European nations, which proclaimed the intention of "continuing to engage Russia" to lift "the undue restrictions on flights over Kaliningrad."[7] In relationship to the Trump administration, which is consistently wrecking the arms control mechanisms achieved over decades, the EU ministers express merely their "regret."

Power Struggle has Priority

In any case, Germany's purported pursuit of disarmament merely applies to maintaining mechanisms - such as the INF and the Open Skies Treaties - that help to limit or at least control the adversary's weaponry, meaning primarily Russia. As soon as Germany is called upon to make a contribution, it reacts differently. This can be seen not only in the billions being now spent on a conventional arms buildup,[8] but is also exemplified by the debate over "nuclear sharing," wherein, when needed, German combat jets must deliver US nuclear bombs stored in Büchel to their targets. The demand, Germany should show credibility in the question of disarmament and relinquish the "nuclear sharing" policy, is clearly rejected by Foreign Minister Maas. "Unilateral steps" would "undermine the confidence of our closest partners and European neighbors" - they "weaken our alliances," declared Maas recently. Therefore, a rejection of "nuclear sharing" is out of the question.[9] Media organs considered liberal are also rejecting the option, reasoning that "this would be convenient for Russia."[10] This indicates that not only for Washington, but for Berlin as well, the power struggle against Russia has priority over nuclear disarmament.


[1], [2], [3] Wolfgang Richter: Angriff auf den Open-Skies-Vertrag. Präsident Trump will den Vertrag über den Offenen Himmel kündigen. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 38. Mai 2020.

[4] John Hudson, Paul Sonne: Trump administration discussed conducting first U.S. nuclear test in decades. washingtonpost.com 22.05.2020.

[5] See also Farewell to the INF Treaty (II) and Farewell to the INF Treaty (III).

[6] Europäische Staaten wollen "Open Skies"-Abkommen retten. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 23.05.2020.

[7] Erklärung der Außenministerien Belgiens, Deutschlands, Finnlands, Frankreichs, Italiens, Luxemburgs, der Niederlande, Portugals, Spaniens, Schwedens und der Tschechischen Republik zur Ankündigung der USA, aus dem Vertrag über den Offenen Himmel auszutreten. auswaertiges-amt.de 22.05.2020.

[8] See also Kampfjets statt Masken, Gepanzerte und weiche Ziele and Ein "nationaler Champion" im Kriegsschiffbau.

[9] Christoph Schult: Maas gegen "deutschen Sonderweg" bei Atomwaffen. spiegel.de 04.05.2020.

[10] Michael Thumann: Abrüstung geht anders. zeit.de 19.05.2020.