US withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty takes European allies by surprise

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Washington announced on Thursday (21 May) it would withdraw from the 35-nation Open Skies Treaty, allowing unarmed surveillance flights over signatory states, the Trump administration’s latest move to pull the country out of yet another major global landmark accord.

The accord, signed in 1992 and in force since 2002, allows its signatories to conduct short-notice unarmed surveillance flights to gather information on each other’s military forces and installations, thereby contributing to inspections of conventional arms control and strategic offensive weapons and reducing the risk of conflict.

The idea is that the more rival militaries know about each other, the less the chance of conflict between them.

Russia and the US, the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, have used it to keep an eye on each other’s activities, but in recent years senior US officials and global non-proliferation experts have warned US President Trump may pull Washington out of the pact.

Washington’s notice

US officials have long complained Russia had failed to comply with the deal, forbidding overflights of key strategic regions and military exercises and accused Moscow using its flights to collect sensitive information on American infrastructure.

Europeans alarmed as US mulls pull-out of yet another arms control treaty

Washington’s threat to leave the Open Skies Treaty, a pact allowing countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territory, has left Europeans concerned that yet another landmark arms control accord might suffer the same fate as the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The US “cannot remain in arms control agreements that are violated by the other side, and that are actively being used not to support but rather to undermine international peace and security,” US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said in a statement on Thursday.

Pompeo cited Russian restrictions on flights and claimed Moscow has used the treaty as “a tool to facilitate military coercion.”

“Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the US and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions,” Pompeo said.

“Rather than using the Open Skies as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency, Russia has, therefore, weaponized the Treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat,” he added.

If not for the value its European allies place on the treaty, Pompeo said the US “would likely have exited long ago.”

Pompeo’s statement leaves open the possibility that Washington might “reconsider” its withdrawal “should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”

With Russia being formally notified on Friday, the withdrawal will take effect six months after the official notice.

Open Skies is the third major security agreement, after the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a landmark 1987 pact with Russia banning a whole class of medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, and the Iran nuclear deal, which Washington decided to scrap in recent years.

Europe weighs consequences as nuclear missiles treaty expires

A landmark agreement of Cold War-era arms control signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan in 1987, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) banned a whole class of medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.

“The withdrawal by the US from this treaty would be not only a blow to the foundation of European security… but to the key security interests of the allies of the US,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko told RIA-Novosti.

Grushko, deputy minister overseeing relations with NATO and the EU, said Trump was trying to justify the exit from a “fundamental treaty” via “technical issues” that should be resolved within the treaty.

“Nothing prevents continuing the discussions over the technical issues which the US is misrepresenting as violations by Russia,” he said.

The announcement, greeted by US conservatives who for long have expressed frustration with global arms control agreements, was met with deep disapproval from former intelligence and national security officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

“This is insane,” former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted.

Expect tensions within Europe

Trump’s move is likely to deepen the rift between Washington and its European and NATO allies, which use the accord to conduct critical overflights of Europe’s vulnerable eastern flank.

NATO allies and countries like Ukraine, which borders Russia, had previously urged Washington not to withdraw, which would end overflights of Russia by the remaining members, weakening European security at a time that Russian-backed separatists are holding parts of Ukraine and Georgia.

“All Allies agree that arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation make essential contributions to achieving the Alliance’s security,” a NATO official told EURACTIV after the announcement, adding that NATO leaders repeatedly reiterated “their concern over Russia’s selective implementation of the Open Skies Treaty, and that this undermines our security”.

However, asked by EURACTIV whether NATO received pre-notice of the withdrawal intention, the official only replied allies would “continue to consult closely on the future of the treaty”.

NATO ambassadors are expected to meet in Brussels on Friday afternoon to discuss the issue.

However, most European allies have so far refrained to comment on the step.

Asked for comment after the withdrawal announcement whether a pre-notice had been send to Brussels on the intention to pull out of the accord, EURACTIV did not hear back before publication of this article.

In December, an EU spokesperson confirmed to EURACTIV that Brussels is aware of the withdrawal debate, after Europeans tried to influence the US position with a letter to US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, while the UK, France and Germany wrote a joint démarche.

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said he “very much regrets the announcement”, stressing that despite the “difficulties in implementing the treaty on the Russian side in recent years, in our view this does not justify termination, as I have repeatedly made clear to foreign minister Pompeo with my colleagues from France, Poland and the UK”.

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