22 November 202011:00

Foreign Ministry statement on the withdrawal by the United States from the Open Skies Treaty


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In the early hours of November 22, the United States completed the procedures to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies. Russia set out its principled position regarding Washington’s decision six month ago, in a Foreign Ministry statement dated May 22, 2020. Following up on this statement, we would like to highlight a number of important points.

It is worth noting that it was Washington that initially proposed the concept of mutual aerial observation in the 1950s, revived this idea in the 1980s and initiated the signing of the Treaty on Open Skies. The United States has invariably presented it as evidence of its commitment to transparency. However, it is obvious that in doing so the United States primarily sought to obtain detailed imagery of Soviet territories that it could not access by other means.

More than 10 years ago, our American colleagues also initiated the transition to digital technology under the Treaty on Open Skies, which can be viewed as an attempt to capitalise on their scientific and technological advances.

Washington’s attitude towards the Treaty changed for the worse when Russia started making regular flights over US territory, especially when our country was first to develop and install digital surveillance equipment on its open skies aircraft. The United States could not put up with what it viewed as encroaching on its “exceptional” status, and started to create barriers in the operation of the Treaty. Here are just some of them:

– introducing a de facto ban on observation flights over US territory by refusing to allow rest and refuelling stops for Russian An-30B aircraft;

– restricting Russia’s ability to observe the Aleutian Islands;

– de facto restricting the maximum flight distance by banning night-time rest stops at the refuelling airfields, which resulted in exceeding crew workload limits;

– a de facto reduction of the flight range over Alaska by wrongfully including into it the transit flight over open seas;

– restricting the observation flight distance over the Hawaiian Islands;

– introducing altitude limits for observation aircraft, which are not set forth in the Treaty on Open Skies and run counter to ICAO’s recommendations;

– unjustified delays in issuing visas to designated personnel;

– failing to observe the established timeframe for paying arrears for observation flights;

– inciting Georgia to violate the Treaty on Open Skies;

– sending old aircraft in an unsatisfactory technical condition for performing open skies missions, putting the crews’ lives and health at risk.

The United States has arrogantly ignored our proposals to resolve these issues, while insisting that its grievances be addressed immediately, even though we responded to these concerns on numerous occasions. When Washington understood that in order to reach an arrangement it would have to make reciprocal steps and address Russia’s concerns, they halted consultations and started accusing our country of violating the Treaty. They used these far-fetched accusations as a pretext for taking “countermeasures,” and later for withdrawing from the Treaty.

Over the past months, Washington has been making hypocritical claims that it would be willing to change its decision if Russia revised its stance. In fact, they never thought about changing anything. This was merely a PR stunt in order to mislead European governments and the public who were calling on Washington to come to its senses. Just like with other arms control treaties, the United States has deliberately sought to undermine the Treaty on Open Skies (it has to be reminded that United States participation was a precondition for the Treaty’s entry into force).

Now that it has left the Treaty on Open Skies, the United States expects its allies to prevent Russia from carrying out observation flights over US military sites in Europe, while also sharing with Washington their aerial footage of the Russian territory.

Make no mistake: this is unacceptable for Russia. We will seek firm guarantees of compliance by other state parties with their obligations under the Treaty on Open Skies. First, they will have to enable observation over their entire territories. Second, they will have to refrain from transferring observation data to third parties that are not members of the Treaty on Open Skies.

If our colleagues actually want the Treaty to remain operational, and for Russia to remain a state party to the Treaty on Open Skies, they will have to promptly come up with ways to address Russia’s concerns.

Washington has made its move. Neither the European security, nor the security of the United States or its allies benefited from this. Many in the West are now asking what Russia’s response will be. The answer is simple. As we have said on numerous occasions, we are open to all the possible options. We keep a close eye on whether the actions of other Treaty members are consistent with what they say. Russia will act according to its security interests and those of its allies.

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