President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty is his latest in a series of moves undermining multilateral agreements, particularly those relating to arms control and Russia.
The U.S. withdrawal from Open Skies is a bad sign for proponents of the New START nuclear arms control deal, which is set to lapse in 2021. Without a new U.S.-Russian agreement, that too will be thrown on the pile of failed accords and potentially prompt a new nuclear arms race.
Explaining the Open Skies decision, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that Russia had not been complying with the treaty, which came into force in 2002. It was designed to decrease military tensions between its 35 signatories by allowing unarmed aerial surveillance flights over their territories.
Pompeo said that the U.S. would end its participation in six months. He accused Russia of “flagrantly” violating the deal, refusing observation flights in a corridor along the Russian-Georgian border near the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “to advance false Russian claims that these occupied territories are independent states.”
Pompeo noted that Russia had designated an Open Skies refueling airfield in Crimea—annexed from Ukraine in 2014—to advance its claim of sovereignty there that the U.S. “does not and will never accept.”
He added that Russia has also restricted flights over the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, where Russian nuclear missiles are thought to be deployed, and did not allow an observation flight over a large military exercise in 2019.
A State Department memo obtained by Newsweek indicated that the administration also believes Russia is using the deal to photograph key infrastructure in Europe and the U.S. that would be bombing targets in the event of war.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told the Tass state news agency on Thursday that the withdrawal would undermine the security of America’s European allies. The chairman of the Russian lower house’s Committee for International Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, said that the “unfounded” decision “may put at risk the system of military security on the European continent.”
Trump has shown willingness to negotiate what he considers better deals for the U.S., for example on North Korean denuclearization, NAFTA or trade with China—though these have all had mixed results to date.
But regardless of Russian violations of Open Skies, the U.S. withdrawal fits a pattern of walking away from multi- or bilateral international agreements.
Early in his presidency, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, which is seeking to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impact of climate change. Then, Pompeo said the agreement was an “unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses and taxpayers.”
Next was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. The 2015 agreement lifted crippling sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Trump was a vociferous critic of the accord—which was considered one of President Barack Obama’s most pivotal foreign policy moves—and subsequently ended U.S. compliance.
Though the administration said the president would renegotiate a new, more restrictive deal with Tehran, this has not happened. Instead, relations between Washington and Tehran have deteriorated to the point of open conflict.
Arms control treaties appear to be no different, whether conventional or nuclear. The president was criticized for the Pentagon’s embrace of cluster munitions and landmines earlier this year, even though such weapons have been banned by more than 160 nations.
On the nuclear front, the Cold War gave rise to several such agreements to avoid catastrophic conflict, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union American and Russian leaders maintained and extended them. But the Trump administration has signaled a shift in approach.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty alleging Russian violations of the pact, which was signed in 1987 by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan.
The deal banned ground-launched nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges from 310 miles to 3,417 miles, forcing the two nations to remove some 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles from the battlefield, many of which were deployed in Europe along the Iron Curtain.
Gorbachev claimed that Trump’s withdrawal was motivated by a U.S. desire “to free themselves of any obligations with respect to weapons and obtain absolute military supremacy.”
New START—an extension of the START treaty signed in 1991—is the last remaining agreement of those that Gorbachev called the “principal pillars of global strategic stability.” It expires in February 2021, and arms control advocates are pushing for the Trump administration to negotiate an extension.
New START introduced a cap of 1,550 accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs for both the U.S. and Russia; limited the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers used for nuclear missions to 700; and limited the total number of deployed and non-deployed assets to 800.
Russia has said it is willing to extend the deal. U.S. officials have suggested they want China to be included in any new agreement, but China has rejected the proposal and experts have warned the chance of Beijing engaging is slim-to-none.
On Thursday, former acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Tom Countryman said that including China “is virtually impossible between now and the expiration of New START in February 2021 because there simply isn’t enough time.”
Arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea said Thursday that the U.S. and Russia have started talks to extend the deal. Countryman warned that continuing to push for Chinese inclusion could damage the chances of success, and called on negotiators to take “the easiest step” and extend the agreement.
Ambassador Richard Burt, who negotiated the original START treaty, told Newsweek in February that the “stability that we’ve learned to take for granted in the nuclear realm seems to be drying up.”
Burt—who served as ambassador to Germany under Reagan—that some figures inside the Trump administration are “suspicious” of arms control generally, believing Cold War-era deals to be holding the U.S. back from “their “dream of a world of American nuclear superiority.”
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