Context: The U.S administration recently said that it will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty (OST) accusing Russia of violating the Treaty in various ways for years.

About the Open Skies Treaty (OST)


  • The idea behind the OST was first proposed in the early years of the Cold War by the former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower as a means to de-escalate tensions during the Cold War.
  • It was eventually signed in 1992 between NATO members and former Warsaw Pact countries following the demise of the Soviet Union.
  • It finally went into effect in 2002.


  • The primary objective of the Open Skies Treaty is to reduce the risk of conflict by providing participants with the ability to collect information about the military forces and activities of others in the treaty. 
  • The OST aims at building confidence among members through mutual openness, thus reducing the chances of accidental war.
  • In particular, "information derived from Open Skies flights can contribute to participating states' national efforts to address a range of military and civil issues.

Details of the OST

  • It is an agreement that allows countries to monitor signatories’ arms development by conducting surveillance flights over each other’s territories.
  • The treaty allows unarmed reconnaissance flights over the territory of treaty countries. 
  • The treaty currently has 35 signatories along with one non-ratifying member (Kyrgyzstan).


  • Under the OST, a member state can “spy” on any part of the host nation, with the latter’s consent. 
  • A country can undertake aerial imaging over the host state after giving notice 72 hours before, and sharing its exact flight path 24 hours before.
  • The information gathered, such as on troop movements, military exercises, and missile deployments, has to be shared with all member states. 
  • Only approved imaging equipment is permitted on the surveillance flights, and officials from the host state can also stay on board throughout the planned journey.

Significance of the Open Skies Treaty

  • Gathering of key information
    • The OST was signed in 1992, much before the advent of advanced satellite imaging technology which is currently the preferred mode for intelligence gathering. 
    • However, it is considered that surveillance aircraft provide key information that still cannot be gathered by satellite sensors, such as thermal imaging data.
  • Reduction in the need to rely on US satellite infrastructure:
    • As only the US has an extensive military satellite infrastructure, other NATO members would have to rely on the US to obtain classified satellite data.
    • This would be more difficult to obtain compared to OST surveillance records that have to be shared with all members as a treaty obligation.
  • OST’s utility for the US
    • The U.S. has used the treaty more intensively than Russia. 
    • Between 2002 and 2016, the U.S. flew 196 flights over Russia (in addition to having imagery from other countries) compared to the 71 flights flown by Russia.

Implications of withdrawal from the treaty

  • Possibility of US to reconsider its decision to withdraw:
    • The US secretary of state has said that the US would reconsider its decision to withdraw if Russia “demonstrates a return to full compliance”.
    • But this approach is similar to suspension of US participation from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty earlier.
      • It was a security agreement that had been credited with curtailing the arms race in Europe towards the end of the Cold War.
      • It was a Treaty Between the United States and Russia on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles.
    • In this scenario, as well the US administration had said that it would re-engage with Russia if it sought a new treaty. However this possibility never got materialized.
  • Impact on US’s European allies
    • These countries rely on OST data to track Russian troop movements in the Baltic region. 
    • According to many security analysts “Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty would be yet another gift from the US Administration to Russia.
  • Possibility of renewing other treaties
    • The OST exit is only the most recent example in the list of important pacts that the US has stepped away from during the Trump presidency, such as the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
      • Paris Agreement: It is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance, signed in 2016.
      • Iran nuclear deal: 
        • It is an agreement between Iran and P5+1(China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—plus Germany); 
        • Under the accord, Iran had agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
    • The US’s exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty as well as it’s signal from departure from OST has raised the strong possibility that the US administration may not renew the ‘New Start Treaty’.


About the New Start Treaty

  • Background
    • The New Start Treaty is an agreement signed by the Obama administration with Russia that caps Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenal.
    • New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is a nuclear arms treaty with a formal name of Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.
    • It entered into force on 5th February, 2011.
  • Provisions:
    • Under the Treaty, the United States and Russia must meet the Treaty’s central limits on strategic arms.
    • Each Party has the flexibility to determine for itself the structure of its strategic forces within the aggregate limits of the Treaty. 
  • Concerns
    • The agreement is due to expire next February.
    • The US administration is concerned that China’s nuclear stockpile could be doubled if the New Start Treaty continued as is, without including China.