– Mehmet A. Kanci is a journalist based in Ankara, writes analyses on Turkish foreign policy.


As it is questioned how the new type of coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, which marks the year 2020, would affect the global system, the expectation that the international cooperation would increase disappears like a mirage on the horizon as time passes and our journey through this experience.

The destruction caused by the epidemic in the economic system is not in the way of the exploration of the possibilities for cooperation, but it primarily motivates the emergence of conflicts of interest between the superpowers and the deepening of contradictions.

The United States, which has consciously moved away from the character of multilateralism in international affairs since Donald Trump took the office as president, is adding new ones to its moves in the course of the epidemic.

The US has declared the end of the globalization, made the United Nations and its affiliated organizations nonfunctional by criticizing them at every opportunity, withdrawn from the treaty on taking the nuclear program of Iran under control, and sent the Mid-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement to the dump of the history in 2018.

In addition to these, almost simultaneously, the United States has suspended the “Open Skies Agreement” first, which kept the last crumbs of its delicate trust bond with Russia, and then announced that it was cutting its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO) within a week.

The SSC-8 (9M729) missiles, whose first tests were conducted by Russia in 2008 and then deployed to the Indo-Pacific region by the People’s Republic of China, provided the United States with the excuse needed to withdraw from the INF.

Thus, those who ponder the global geopolitical course have long sought the answer to “are we facing a new era of Cold War?” and they finally got the answer to this question.

Yes, the international community is facing a new Cold War process.

Moreover, this time the United States decided to wage this war on two fronts.

On one front is the People’s Republic of China, which is seen as responsible for the Covid-19 outbreak and has been accused of hiding the findings of the outbreak in cooperation with the WHO.

The cancellation of the special status granted to Hong Kong, the pressure on Taiwan, the attempt by Huawei Telecommunications Company to engage with the ally countries of the US through technology with 5G technology, the trade war, the Belt and Road Initiative, the military fortification in the South China Sea are the key topics of the US criminal record for the Beijing administration.

On the other side of the second front drawn by the United States in the new Cold War is its arch-rival Russia.

Washington’s move to withdraw from the Open Skies Agreement in the wake of the INF reveals that Russia, in the Pentagon’s eyes, is still a priority threat in terms of the military than China.

The fate of the Open Skies Agreement, which the United States announced its suspension on May 22, will be no different from the INF.

By December 2020, the United States will have announced its withdrawal from this agreement.

Unlike the cancellation of the INF, the conclusion of the Open Skies Agreement will create even more challenging conditions in the global security climate, which is increasingly prone to severe storms in the short term, facing more than 30 countries, including Turkey.

While the effects of these harsh conditions for Turkey are already being felt over the Black Sea and Libya, this pioneering storm of the Cold War would likely have an impact on the Caucasus and Syria before the end of 2020. 

Breaking down iron curtain in the sky: The Open Skies Agreement

Although November May 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of the Cold War, the initiative for the Open Skies Agreement, one of the most concrete steps to break the ice between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, was launched by the US President George Bush (the father Bush) in May 1989.

The goal was to establish a confidence-building atmosphere with flights from NATO and Warsaw Pact countries in each other’s airspace.

The sides of the Cold War would fly through the airspace of countries they had considered enemies for half a century, observe the positions of their armies, check whether they had any intention of a surprise attack, thus ensure the transparency of military organizations.

In 1955, the first attempt by Dwight Eisenhower, the US President at that time, in this direction was rejected by the USSR, describing it as “the legalization of espionage”.

By the end of the 1980s, however, the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had neither economies nor dynamism left to sustain the Cold War.

The Open Skies Agreement was the first step towards ending the competition and ensuring the trust of each other.

The agreement, which was originally planned to be signed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact organizations, changed its character following the coup attempt in the USSR in August 1991.

The Central and Eastern European countries, intending to sever their ties with the Warsaw Pact, saw the danger of an unexpected return in the USSR binding them and also concluded that the threat posed by the Armed Forces of the USSR must be followed by them.

The first step towards its implementation was the start of 2002, when the agreement, which took place in Helsinki in 1992, entered into force in its present form with the participation of 34 countries.

The Open Skies Agreement was a structure with strict rules on the details, from flight procedures, routes to be followed, bases to be used on these flights, the equipment of the aircraft, and the standards of the images to be taken on the territory of the country in which the flight took place.

The technical aspects were well worked out and the fact that it did not allow the parties to go around in violation of the terms of the agreement was perhaps one of the reasons why the life of this agreement was short.

The murderers of the Open Skies Agreement 

A day after the United States announced it was suspending the deal, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the press and called on Moscow, not Washington, to meet the terms of the agreement and to discuss the implementation of it.

Stoltenberg voiced support for the Rationale of the North Atlantic Alliance for suspending the US deal, urging Russia to stop curtailing air inspections over Kaliningrad and around Georgia.

Therefore, Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea coast between Poland and Lithuania, became one of the main reasons for the conclusion of the Open Skies Agreement after being an important reason for the end of the INF.

This piece of land, which belongs to Russia but has no land links with Russia, is under the close watch of NATO because it is home to Alexander missiles capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads at a range of 500 kilometers.

The Russian missiles in Kaliningrad are located alongside the NATO forces in Poland, at a distance that, despite all the possibilities of technology, would not be able to respond if they were fired.

The beginning of the suspension process of the deal, with the Caucasus on the agenda and centered on Kaliningrad and Georgia, dates back to 2014, when clashes broke out in Ukraine’s East and Crimea was annexed by Russia. 

The death of the agreement: A crisis in the Ukrainian skies

The first step to dynamite the foundation of the Open Skies Agreement was taken by Russia again in April 2014, only a month after the annexation of Crimea.

On April 17, the United States announced that Russia had canceled a flight to the Russian-Ukrainian border under the Open Skies Agreement.

According to the American military officials, Russia did not want its military mobility on Ukraine’s border with Donbas to be detected.

Given that the beginning of the crisis has taken place on the axis of Ukraine-Crimea-US-Russia, it is no surprise that the US made its first challenge to Russia on the Black Sea after suspending the Open Skies Agreement on May 22.

Departing Ellsworth Air Base in South Dakota on 29 May, American B1B Lancer bombers accompanied by the Polish Air Force-bound F-16 and MiG-29 fighter jets reached the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, Romanian F-16 and MiG-21 aircraft were also included in this squadron.

Finally, on the Black Sea for the first time, the mission of the US air bombardment accomplished a task in cooperation with the Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter aircraft, as well as with the Turkish Air Force KC-135 refueling aircraft.

This cooperation of the NATO member and partner countries was the most serious response to the abuses of Russia in Crimea, Ukraine, and the Black Sea axis since 2014.

Russia responded to this mission over the Black Sea by airlifting Su-27 and Su-30SM aircraft.

However, the “Open Skies” on the US-Poland-Black Sea line did not stop there.

On 30 May, the Ministry of National Defense shared an image of the refueling of a Turkish Air Force tanker plane to an AWACS plane belonging to the NATO in the Romanian airspace.

Looking back once again to examine the breach process of the deal from 2020, in 2015 we see that the United States once again raising its warnings that Russia is restricting inspections across the country.

The escalating tension took on a new dimension in February 2016 with Russia’s demand to conduct an observation flight over Turkey’s border with Syria.

Turkey has rejected the request for this flight, which also aims to observe the NATO air elements in the region.

Later in 2016, Russia changed the optical systems on aircraft it used in inspection flights, despite strictly set rules.

Russia’s conduct of inspection flights using digital optical systems over the US territory has provoked backlash at all levels of the US administration.

The year 2017 began with the new developments that jeopardized the Open Skies Agreement.

In response to Russia limiting flights over Kaliningrad, the US administration also banned Russia from flying over military installations in Hawaii and Alaska.

In the crisis, the US banned the accommodation of Russian crew members at airbases used for the Open Skies Agreement in Georgia and South Dakota.

Russia responded by closing 3 bases on its territory to flights for the Open Skies Agreement.

On 6 December 2017, the United States, conducted a flight in that country’s airspace under the Open Skies Agreement at the request of Ukraine, confirming the defense cooperation support given to the Kiev administration.

There have been new developments in 2018 that would put the implementation of the agreement at an impasse.

The US has opposed the use of two Tu-214ON-type aircraft; which Russia would use in the inspection flights.

According to the US side, these aircraft had imaging technologies beyond the standards that were set in the agreement.

In October 2019, the first sign that the road was coming to an end in the ”Open Skies” was manifested in a letter sent by Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

Engel said in the letter that he was concerned about US President Trump’s tendency to withdraw from the deal.

And that concern became a reality in May 2020.

Now NATO countries are focused on the potential negative developments with the closure of the Open Skies. 

What awaits NATO and Turkey as the “Open Skies” close? 

In essence, the US decisions that took relations with Russia step by step back to Cold War-era standards are a natural consequence of the process that began with Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 because of the Ossetia problem.

Russia was not content with enforcing NATO’s policy of preventing its eastward expansion by using armed force in Georgia.

This was followed by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the simultaneous invasion of eastern Ukraine under the pretext of protecting the rights of the Russian minority in the Donbas region.

Immediately afterward, using the Port of Sevastopol in Crimea as a springboard, Russia first took steps that made its military presence in Syria permanent.

These days, we see that these steps continue in the east of Libya.

“Little green men” of Russia, who played a role in the annexation of Crimea, wearing military uniforms with no country flag on them, are now in business in Benghazi and Sirte under the name of the Wagner security company.

Moreover, the Russian security company, which these “little green men” are connected with and are the product of a hybrid war, has delivered MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter jets from Astrakhan to Libya via Iran and Syria.

This development, which is understood to have occurred in the week that the US announced its suspension of the Open Skies Agreement, was disclosed by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) with its visual evidence.

Although this information has been denied by Moscow, it reveals that Stalin’s interest in the Caucasus, the Turkish Straits, the Persian Gulf, and North Africa during the aftermath of the Second World War continues in the Kremlin today.

Russia is understood to be planning to extend the line of the defense it has built with A2AD (Anti-Access and Area Denial) doctrine against NATO by annexing Crimea with both coastal and the air defense missiles from the East to the central parts of the Mediterranean Sea.

The efforts of Russia to keep the NATO naval and air elements out of the Black Sea to the central and eastern Mediterranean are the same as the encirclement of NATO and Europe.

At this point, the issue has now gone beyond the struggle for energy resources in Syria, Libya, or the Black Sea.

Would the disappearance of the Open Skies Agreement be against NATO or Russia under these circumstances? That will be the question to be answered in the next six months.

The Open Skies Agreement was built based on increasing trust between the former Warsaw Pact and NATO countries.

It was built on the principle of ensuring that a large number of European countries that do not have adequate satellite technology receive information about the military moves of the United States and especially Russia.

The United States, which has developed its satellite network and imaging technologies to observe the Earth over the past 30 years, no longer needs an application like The Open Skies Agreement to observe Russia’s military might.

The “Artemis Project”, which envisages the US going back to the moon in 2024, is likely to give the Washington administration another advantage in this area.

It is claimed that the US will set up a base in space with the Artemis project to spy on its rivals on earth.

If this happens, the missile systems aimed at shooting down satellites already developed by the People’s Republic of China will also have a limited impact in stopping the US intelligence.

On the other hand, the same cannot be said for Russia and almost all of the European countries.

If the deal goes away, the NATO member states, including Turkey, will become more dependent on the satellite intelligence provided by the United States.

Are the NATO countries other than the United States likely to pursue this agreement with Russia? Looking at the way things are going nowadays, it is not possible to claim that this is a realistic option.

The disappearance of the Open Skies Treaty will not only lead to a loss of confidence in Russia.

This loss of confidence will bring unforeseen side effects.

The cooperation of Turkey with Russia in Syria could face new complications, as could Russia’s support for steps to split the country in two in Libya, as it did in Syria.

Russia today has become a systematic policy to establish areas of influence in the Caucasus, the Black Sea by separating Donbas and Crimea from Ukraine, the Carpathians by separating Transnistria from Moldova, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus by dominating the west of the Euphrates in Syria, the central Mediterranean and Italy by forming a basis to support the separation of the east of Libya, and to the increase in these spheres of influence will further enhance NATO’s European members’ need for intelligence obtained through the Open Skies Agreement or the US satellites in the short term.

Indeed, both the US and NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg have cited Russia’s blocking of flights around Kaliningrad and Georgia as reasons for the failure of the agreement.

Turkey’s cooperation with the NATO members and partner countries on the Black Sea, which gained momentum in the past week, could bring about a process that would require the redefinition of relations between the alliance and Ankara in the next six months.

No doubt this process would bring to the table the future of S-400 missiles and the air defense systems that Turkey has requested from the alliance, with the plight of Fatah members seeking asylum while serving in the NATO missions in Europe.

In this geopolitical climate, where the scissors between the United States and Russia are increasingly being opened and the People’s Republic of China is being added to the Cold War Front, NATO is facing tasks beyond the Cold War era.

Turkey, on the other hand, is poised to undertake new missions in a wide geographical area beyond the past South Wing country mission, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Pamir Mountains, and from the Sea of Azov to Somalia.

In light of today’s developments, Turkey has become a front-line country again.

Hence, according to the 4th amendment of NATO’s founding treaty, requests for assistance must be met and their deficiencies must be completed.

Turkey is taking its place on the stage as a wing country in the context of deeper geography, not just on land, but in the air and even in space.

Also, given that the threats from the People’s Republic of China were also on the agenda of the alliance at the last NATO summit in London in December 2019, a further deepening of the relations between the alliance and Ankara will be inevitable when Turkey is called to the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula deficits soon.

With the annulment of the Open Skies Agreement in 2021, the effects of the global struggle in which the new model of the Cold War, that has been drawn up, will be experienced with concrete cases in the Black Sea, Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Caucasus.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

* Translated by Merve Dastan in Ankara.

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