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– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Kingston Reif

Russia May Leave Open Skies Treaty

March 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

Russia announced in January that it would begin domestic procedures for withdrawing from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, but later clarified that it could reverse the decision if the United States returned to the agreement.

Danish jets accompany a Russian An-30 aircraft during an observation flight under the Open Skies Treaty over the territory of Denmark in June 2008. (Photo: OSCE)The Biden administration, meanwhile, has begun a review of whether and, if so, how it would be possible to return the United States to the treaty after the Trump administration exited the multilateral agreement last year over objections from members of Congress and key European allies.

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in November 2020 “destroyed the balance of interests of the State-Parties reached when the Treaty was signed, inflicted a severe damage to its functioning, and undermined the role of the Open Skies Treaty as a confidence and security building measure,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said Jan. 15.

The domestic procedures are estimated to be completed by this summer, according to a Feb. 22 remark by Konstantin Gavrilov, Russian head of negotiations in Vienna on military security and arms control. “If the United States does not inform us before that time about its readiness to return to the treaty framework,” Gavrilov said, Russia will give official notice to the treaty depositaries, Canada and Hungary. Once states-parties are notified, Moscow could officially withdraw in six months’ time, as stipulated by the treaty text.

But Russia has hedged on its withdrawal threat. If the Biden administration signals a willingness to return the United States to the treaty, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Feb. 11, “we might somehow adjust the decision to launch internal procedures.”

“But nobody should expect Russia to make any concessions,” he added.

NATO immediately criticized Moscow’s decision to begin the withdrawal process. “Russia’s selective implementation of its obligations under the Open Skies Treaty has for some time undermined the contribution of this important treaty to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region,” said NATO Deputy Spokesman Piers Cazalet on Jan. 15.

Russia last November outlined the two conditions under which it would remain party to the treaty: the remaining states-parties must give written legal guarantees not to prohibit overflights of U.S. bases in Europe nor continue to share data collected under the treaty with the United States.

“If the remaining participants bow to the United States, it will not take us long to provide a harsh response,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Dec. 29. “We have not yet received such guarantees, so the further fate of the Open Skies Treaty is highly questionable.”

German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on Jan. 3 that Russia notified the remaining states-parties Dec. 22 that it would seek to withdraw from the treaty unless the parties provided the written guarantees by Jan. 1. The foreign ministers of 16 states-parties, including France and Germany, ultimately rejected Russia’s request and encouraged further discussion of these issues during the next meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC), the implementing body of the treaty, on Jan. 25.

“We did all we could to save it,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Jan. 21, but “our proposals were dismissed.”

“In doing this, the Western countries scrapped forever the once vital measure of transparency and mutual trust in the Euro-Atlantic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” she continued.

During the OSCC meeting, Gavrilov criticized the remaining states-parties for not agreeing to Moscow’s terms and claimed to have “clear evidence” that Washington demanded from its allies signed documents saying that they would continue to transfer information obtained from treaty overflights to the United States and deny Russian requests to fly over U.S. bases in Europe.

“We regret that the lack of political realism and constructive approach on the part of the states-parties led to this situation,” he said. “If our Western partners wish to make reproaches, they should only address them to themselves.”

Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general and U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told The Economist that, in her view, “the Russians wanted to send a message that they won’t be pushed around on arms control and NATO.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed his support for the Open Skies Treaty and denounced the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the United States. But he has yet to say whether he would seek to have Washington reenter the agreement or whether he views the withdrawal as illegal as it was done in violation of the law.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Feb. 2 that the Biden administration is “studying” the issue of the treaty’s future. “We’ll take a decision in due course. To the best of our knowledge, Russia is still not in full compliance with the treaty.”

Lavrov commented the same day that “[i]f the United States fully returns to observing the treaty, the Russian Federation would be ready to constructively consider that new situation.”

Moscow says it might reverse the process for withdrawal if the United States takes steps to return to the multilateral agreement.

U.S., Russia Extend New START for Five Years

With only days remaining until its expiration, the United States and Russia officially sealed an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) for an additional five years, keeping in place the treaty’s verifiable limits on the deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers. The U.S. Department of State and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued separate statements Feb. 3 announcing that the formal exchange of documents on the extension had been completed. Biden administration officials stressed that the extension would buy time and space...

Agreement to Extend New START a Win for Global Security



Statement from Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

For Immediate Release: Jan. 26, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104

We applaud the businesslike, no-nonsense decision by President Biden and President Putin to extend the New START agreement by five years—the maximum allowed under the 2010 treaty.

Maintaining New START and its verification system will enhance U.S. and global security, curtail dangerous nuclear arms racing, and create the potential for more ambitious steps to reduce the nuclear danger and move us closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

New START extension should be just the beginning and not the end of U.S. and Russian nuclear disarmament diplomacy. Both countries have a special responsibility and a national interest in reducing and eventually eliminating their bloated, costly, and deadly nuclear stockpiles, which are by far the largest among the world’s nine nuclear-armed actors.

We urge President Biden and President Putin to go further by directing their diplomats to quickly—within the next 200 days—begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement to achieve deeper mutual reductions in their stockpiles, and seek ways to engage other nuclear-armed states, which possess far smaller but still deadly arsenals, in the nuclear disarmament enterprise.

A key objective of the next round of bilateral talks should be, in part, deeper verifiable cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons. In 2013 the Obama administration determined that the United States could reduce its nuclear force by one-third below New START levels and still meet deterrence requirements. Unfortunately, President Putin rejected the proposal at that time.

U.S.-Russian follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons; the interrelationship between offensive nuclear weapons and strategic missile defenses; and long-range, dual-capable conventional missiles, including those formerly banned by the INF Treaty.

Within the first 100 days, the Biden administration should also take steps that could allow the United States to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty so long as Russia continues to remain a party. The Trump administration’s announcement that it would withdraw from the agreement violated Sec. 1234 of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the administration to notify Congress 120 days ahead of a U.S. notification of an intent to withdraw from the treaty. The Trump administration did not do so.

The Biden administration clearly understands the value of effective nuclear arms control for U.S. and international security. As Joe Biden said in the past: “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity."


A Statement from Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

Country Resources:

Entry into Force of Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty a Step Forward



For Immediate Release: January 21, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104

(Washington, D.C.)—On Jan. 22, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons formally enters into force.

For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use, threat of use, and stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a states party's national territory will all be expressly prohibited in a global treaty. The TPNW will also require states to provide assistance to those affected by nuclear weapons use and testing.

“We welcome the arrival of the TPNW, which marks a historic and very positive step forward in the decades-long effort to prevent nuclear war and create a world free of nuclear weapons,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“Rather than adopt the Trump administration’s misguided criticism of the TPNW as a threat to the NPT and repeat its clumsy attempt to get states un-sign the treaty, the incoming Biden administration should make it clear that the United States views the TPNW a good faith effort by the majority of the world’s nations to fulfill their own NPT-related disarmament obligations and help build the legal framework for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons,” suggested former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, Tom Countryman, who serves as chair of the board of the Arms Control Association.

“While the TPNW will not immediately eliminate any nuclear weapons, the treaty further delegitimizes nuclear weapons and strengthens the legal and political norm against their possession and use—and hopefully will compel renewed action by nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons,” Kimball said.

“The TPNW is a powerful reminder that for the majority of the world’s states, nuclear weapons — and policies that threaten their use for any reason — are immoral, dangerous, and unsustainable,” Kimball added.

The TPNW complements other nonproliferation and disarmament instruments, including the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The TPNW effort was also designed to fill a “legal gap” in the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

While the NPT obligates non-nuclear-weapon states to foreswear nuclear weapons, it recognized the five original nuclear-weapon states — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China — that already possessed them at the time the NPT was negotiated.

Article VI of the NPT obliges all of its 190 states parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” But the NPT does not explicitly ban nuclear weapons, and some nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, and Pakistan) are not members of the NPT.

“This adjustment to the United States’ rhetorical approach to the TPNW, which can help begin to restore the U.S. reputation as a global leader and bridge-builder and it will improve Washington’s opportunity rally support around a meaningful consensus final document and action plan at the pivotal 10th NPT Review Conference in August 2021,” Countryman said.

“Now that the TPNW exists, all states—whether they are opponents, supporters, skeptics, or undecideds on the treaty—need to learn to live with it responsibly and find creative ways to move forward together to press for progress on their common challenge: preventing nuclear conflict and eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons,” Countryman suggested.


For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use, threat of use, and stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a states party's national territory will all be expressly prohibited in a global treaty. 


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