The Dimming Prospects of US-Russian Deescalation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 81

Antony Blinken (left) and Sergei Lavrov, Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19 (Source: Reuters)

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, met for the first time in person on May 19, 2021, in Reykjavik, Iceland, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial. Their get-together represented an attempt to deescalate mounting US-Russian tensions, but apparently the two head diplomats did not manage to achieve much during their two-hour-long discussion. Both sides evidently only had time to state their respective positions on a wide range of outstanding contentious issues. After that, they chose not to hold a joint press conference. Lavrov spoke to a group of accompanying Russian journalists, while the State Department issued a written statement and Blinken posted to Twitter. No progress seems to have been made on arranging an in-person summit between Presidents Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin in mid-June 2021, during the US leader’s first European visit as head of state. This summit, to be held possibly somewhere in Finland or Switzerland, is seen in some quarters as the best way to stabilize and possibly improve Russo-US relations. Biden proposed it last month, in a phone call with Putin, and Blinken has expressed belief that it will still happen; but the Kremlin continues to be noncommittal. While confirming there are preparatory discussions happening, the Russian side has refused to confirm Putin would be coming to the table. Of course, Foreign Minister Lavrov is not the person in charge of preparing such a possible summit, nor would he be in the position to decide whether or not to go ahead with it. In Reykjavik, Lavrov refused to discuss with journalists the prospects of a possible Biden-Putin meeting. As the foreign minister noted, he was in Reykjavik simply to state the Russian position, listen to Blinken and report back to Moscow (, May 19).

The day Blinken and Lavrov met in Reykjavik, the State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) unanimously scrapped (officially “denounced”) one of the last important confidence-building measures adopted by the East and West at the end of the Cold War—the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies, which for nearly three decades had allowed member countries to overfly each other’s territories to perform legal espionage or observer missions and monitor their military activities (see EDM, May 28, 2020). Some 30 years ago, the East and West believed they were not enemies anymore and were ready to open up. Today the opposite is true, and Open Skies, together with other treaties from around this period, including the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty or the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which contributed to maintaining peace and mutual security in Europe, have all been abandoned. In May 2020, then-President Donald Trump announced the United States was pulling out of Open Skies; after the mandatory six-month waiting period, in November 2020, already after losing the election, the Trump White House confirmed the US had formally left the treaty and would not permit any more Open Skies overflights (Novaya Gazeta, January 16, 2021).

Open Skies is a multinational treaty, signed by 35 and ratified by 34 countries. With the US out and now Moscow leaving as well, the treaty will legally continue to exist—just like the CFE still legally exists after Moscow “suspended” its participation in December 2007. But little is now left when it comes to confidence-building measures between Russia and the West. Smaller states that lack spy satellites, advanced surveillance drones, sensor-heavy planes or other intelligence-gathering assets on par with the US and Russia cherished the CFE for permitting intrusive on-site inspections of potential rivals, while Open Skies overflights provided another important independent source of intelligence. The US has routinely held back sensitive intelligence information from certain allies to keep possible leaks under control, and it has practically never shared with them so-called raw intelligence. The Pentagon and the US intelligence community can well do without Open Skies, but European allies expressed regret and discontent while many in the US, including then–presidential candidate Biden, condemned Trump’s decision to pull out last year. Moscow initially floated the possibility that it might remain within Open Skies despite the Washington’s withdrawal, apparently hoping to cause additional rifts between the Trump administration and Europe. When Biden took over, he focused on restoring transatlantic links. In January, Moscow announced it would abandon Open Skies but suggested it might still stay if Biden brought the US back into the treaty (Novaya Gazeta, January 16).

The US had been using two aging Open Skies–compatible Boeing OC-135B surveillance jets, built in the early 1960s. In 2020, the Pentagon spent $41.5 million to replace the onboard wet-film cameras with new digital sensors on both aircraft. This year, the Defense Department has no funding for overflights, and both planes are being sent to the junkyard along with the new sensors. An emotional reunion of crew members sent the old planes off, remembering travel to the outer reaches of Russia, ceremonially eating fish in jelly (zalivnoye) and other food traditionally over-spiced with dill. If the Biden administration actually wants to return to the treaty, one option to bypass the present lack of available US Open Skies jets could be to cooperate with European allies that use their own certified aircraft. But in any case, coming back into the treaty would require funding and consent from Congress, which may not be forthcoming (Kommersant, May 12).

Blinken and Biden have been declaring the need to achieve stable and predictable relations with Russia while reacting forcefully to Russian infringements—in other words, punishing bad behavior with predictable sanctions and offering partial sanctions relief for being good (, May 20). If that is, indeed, the Biden administration’s strategy for building a relationship with the Kremlin, it may be heading into a disastrous summit with Putin, assuming it happens at all. Putin insists Russia is a nuclear and conventional military superpower with the most modern (and largest) nuclear arsenal in the world (, May 20). Recently, the Kremlin leader promised, “We will break in the teeth of those, who try to bite, to take what is ours,” by unleashing the Russian Armed Forces (Interfax, May 20). US attempts to cultivate some kind of steady and predictable relationship with Putin’s Russia will have to take such Kremlin mentality into consideration.