Open Skies or "The Warsaw Pact: My Part in its Downfall"

Let me apologize at the outset for this double-sized edition of John's Musings. I got carried away down memory lane. I hope you will forgive the length and enjoy an anecdote or two from the Cold War days.

On May 21, 2020, President Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty. This prompted a personal recollection on my own involvement in the origins of “Open Skies” - and how I wound up leading a "trial Open Skies overflight" of Soviet military bases in Hungary during the last days of the Cold War.

I was going to call this Musing “Open Skies: From Concept to International Treaty”. But Spike Milligan’s book about his time in the British Army during World War II came to mind. Largely a humorous tale of things gone wrong, interlaced with comic situations, he modestly titled his book: “Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall”. 

So here’s my part in the downfall of the Warsaw Pact.  

In 1989-1990, I was deeply involved in preparing the way for that meeting. I was the Open Skies policy lead in the Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (DFAIT). Not many know Canada’s instrumental role in getting the concept off the ground.

First, the Open Skies concept. The idea was to allow NATO and Warsaw Pact countries to fly at short notice over each other’s territory to examine whether preparations might be underway for military action. Its purpose was transparency and confidence-building. Flights were to be conducted in unarmed aircraft and equipped with sensors only.

Cracking open the carapace of the Soviet Union via short-notice overflights by NATO was a major transparency step in those days. You have to remember this was a time when the two military blocs still had hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops across Europe, including the European part of the USSR. It was – and is – designed to prevent miscalculation and misunderstandings about military intentions in regions that have seen their unfortunate share of major conflicts and wars in the past.

I was in the Arms Control & Disarmament Division of DFAIT. The Director, Ralph Lysyshyn, slouching characteristically with hands thrust deep in his pockets, was saying we (Canada) had to do something innovative to help thaw  the Cold War. What could we do? Ralph and Director General John Noble latched onto the old Open Skies idea first mooted back in 1955 by US President Dwight Eisenhower.

To give the old proposal new life, Ralph had to be inventive. He came up with three things.

First, he and Noble shuttled back and forth to Washington DC to plant the idea with the State Department arms control specialists and transfer it into American hands. If it didn’t come from the United States, the Soviets would not play. Sure enough, the proposal made its way up the chain to the White House, and President George H. Bush launched it publicly in a speech in Texas in May 1989.

Second, Ralph decided that we needed to organize the first-ever NATO-Warsaw Pact conference in Ottawa to agree to start negotiations on an Open Skies agreement between the two blocs. In a moment of inspiration – more like desperation – he decided that I should do this. “You’re kidding, right?” I said after regaining consciousness. “In Ottawa? How, where, with what?” Hearing little sympathy, I set about organizing a venue, inter-departmental support, hotel accommodation, and sundry arrangements for the arrival of 23 Foreign Ministers and their entourages. In addition I was responsible on the Canadian side for supporting the fleshing out of the Open Skies proposal, as it was rather thin on detail at that time. We still had to get it through NATO arms control committees, get military sign-off, and turn it into a solid, effective security-producing instrument.

I remember calling around Ottawa hotels over Christmas 1989 to block book 150 rooms for early February. I could hear silence at the end of the phone, unbelieving, or simply no response. Quack caller obviously. But as I got the inter-departmental meetings underway with defence, CSIS, PCO and other agencies, word started to seep out that something big was coming. Next thing, I had a floral arrangement of yellow call-back messages on my desk – please call so-and-so at the Westin, the Sheridan, the Marriott.

The third thing was the best. Ralph decided I should lead a “trial” overflight of a Warsaw Pact country before the NATO-Warsaw Pact conference. This would produce useful information on how to conduct a flight and simulate the procedures needed to make it work. Great, I thought. How am I to do that?

We huddled at Ralph’s home with Tibor Toth, a Hungarian foreign ministry official with an expansive personality, strong NATO leanings, and fed up with the Soviet Union and the whole Warsaw Pact. Tibor offered Hungary as the trial host. Together we devised the outlines of the trial overflight from a diplomatic perspective.

Next, we contacted National Defence, where the logistics were sorted out. Of particular interest to Canadian intelligence officials was the flight pattern we would use, as the plan was to criss-cross Hungarian territory in a propeller-driven Canadian C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. Our draft flight plan included flying over several Soviet military bases in Hungary. Would the Hungarians accept this? Yes, said Tibor. But we asked, would the Soviets accept it (seeing as the bases were defended by surface-to-air missile batteries)? Tibor promised he would talk with the Russians and get their approval – or at least their acquiescence.

As 1990 began, I flew to the Canadian airbase at Lahr, Germany. From there we travelled on 4 January aboard the Hercules aircraft designated for the overflight. We touched down at Hungary’s Ferihegy Airport, taxiing over to the military base where I met Tibor and Márton Krasznai from the Hungarian foreign ministry.

Most importantly, we met the Chief of the Hungarian Air Force. I asked him: did the Soviets know that a NATO airplane would be flying over their military bases? Would we be intercepted (or worse)? “No worry”, he said. “We have good relations with them. They know.” Plus, he added, the Hungarians had an agreement with the Russians not to conduct any military flights from their airbases during the weekend, due to the noise levels. “And”, he added brightly, “Today is Saturday.”

Trusting in this assurance, off went the Canadian team on the morning of 6 January with Tibor and Márton aboard, flying as low as 1500 metres from one border of Hungary to another, including over the Soviet airbases, where we could clearly see the SAM missiles pointing upwards. We stood in the belly of the Hercules, peering down from small windows. Márton noted the dock was missing from his lakeside cabin on Lake Balaton. We discussed that and made other small talk. Anything to ward off the apprehension that we were sitting ducks, lumbering around the country for 3 hours in a slow-moving, hard to miss, transport plane.

As soon as we landed, I was interviewed on Hungarian TV while still sitting in the hold of the plane before disembarking. Later at a reception at the Hungarian foreign ministry, we watched the newscast. People thought I looked very pale during the interview. For some reason I was described in the English sub-title as the Canadian foreign minister. This I duly reported to Ottawa.

In all, quite an experience. Not a shot fired. Clearly the Warsaw Pact was trembling after Barrett and team showed up. Its downfall was imminent.

And it soon came to pass. Remember, we still had the NATO and Warsaw Pact foreign ministers arriving in Ottawa in mid-February. By now the key departments of the Canadian bureaucracy were in full organizational swing. The historic meeting took place in the old Ottawa train station (known then as the Government Conference Centre) on 11-13 February. Plenary meetings were spread over two days, to be followed by negotiating teams staying behind to engage in drafting a treaty.

Just before the main plenary meeting, I dropped by the Conference Centre to check if all the administrative preparations were in place and ready. I stopped to chat with someone I knew in the Open Skies Conference Secretariat. Normally soft-spoken and shy, she was evidently flustered. I asked what was wrong. She was irritated at the behaviour of two German diplomats who had charged into her office, demanded she type something for them right away, then rushed out without even a thank you.

I asked whether she'd kept a copy of the text (it was early days of Wang word processors). She had. I then suggested she print it for me.  It was an advance copy of the 2+4 agreement in principle on the future of Germany that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State James Baker had cooked up, with the agreement (or resignation) of the British and French – the four Occupying Powers at the end of WWII. Of course, it would require support (or acquiescence) of West Germany and East Germany.

We heard there’d been meetings going on that morning amongst them. A 2+4 agreement would be proof positive the old post-war divisions in Europe were coming to an end. The Warsaw Pact was still alive, barely, but disintegrating before our eyes. Barbed wire fences between Hungary and Austria were cut in late 1989, with thousands of Hungarians and East Germans pouring through. Germany would be unified in October 1990. The USSR itself would collapse in December 1991.

But here, at this moment, I had the text in my hand, well before the announcement. I scampered up to the Canadian Foreign Minister Joe Clark’s office in the Conference Centre and handed it over. We had it before the rest of the world – at least for a few hours. Maybe a small gesture. But in diplomacy and negotiations, getting a step ahead is sometimes nearly as important as winning the battle.

At least that’s how it felt then. And if you go to the old train station where the Canadian Senate now has its quarters during the refurbishment of Parliament’s Centre Block, you’ll see a historic plaque commemorating it was there, on 13 February 1990, that the 2+4 agreement on Germany’s future (the “Ottawa Accord”) was struck. The Warsaw Pact was now coming to an end.

But the plaque doesn’t mention my part in its downfall. Now you know it.