The US government has announced it will prepare its withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies due to Russian violations.

What is the Treaty on Open Skies?

The United States plans to withdraw from the treaty between NATO and former members of the Warsaw Pact for mutual military air surveillance in six months, the White House announced on Thursday, May 21. The Treaty on Open Skies The Treaty on Open Skies is an international military agreement which allows the 34 signatory states — including the United States and Russia — to perform several observation flights annually in the airspace of the participating nations.

As a reason for the decision, President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the United States would not abide by agreements that were currently being violated by Russia. A Defense Department spokesman also stated that the Kremlin continued to “shamelessly violate” its contractual obligations under the treaty. Russia limits flights over the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which “reduces transparency in a very militarized area,” according to O’Brien.

Russia Responds

Russia, meanwhile, negated the accusations. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov criticized the US in Moscow on Friday for not providing any evidence for the allegations. Most importantly, the US withdrawal from the control agreement was undermining international security, according to Ryabkov. Russia was inclined to continue its treaty participation, for the time being, Ryabkov noted.

The observation flights of the treaty serve to control arms and build trust in difficult geopolitical times. Representatives of the observing and observed states always take part in all flights. President Dwight Eisenhower had initially proposed the treaty as a confidence-building measure in 1955, however, was rejected by the Soviet Union.

Then in 1992, NATO and the states of the former Warsaw Pact had agreed on mutual military surveillance “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”, following a renewed initiative by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. The treaty entered into force in 2002. Several other countries such as Sweden or the ex-Yugoslav successor states Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina also joined the treaty. For the US itself, overflights for the US military have become less important in recent years, thanks to modern surveillance satellites, however. Already in 2016, the Defense Department commented that the overflights under the treaty primarily provided valuable information for allies and partners who did not possess the same surveillance capabilities as the United States.

International Reaction to Trump’s Move

Internationally, the Trump administration’s plan has been met with objection. Ten European countries expressed regret that the US would exit the treaty and pledged to continue implementing the agreement with Russia. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he deplored the announcement by the US government collectively with his colleagues from France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden. Maas considers the treaty as an essential part of the European arms control architecture, as it had contributed to “security and peace” across the northern hemisphere. However, Maas also admitted that there had indeed been difficulties in implementing the treaty on the Russian side in recent years, albeit these did not justify termination, Maas concluded. The contract thus remained “functional and meaningful”, the EU’s joint declaration stated, although Russia was called upon to return to the full implementation of the contract. Besides the EU, NATO also seeks to discuss the future of the treaty shortly.

Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also declared that it was a legitimate question whether Russia had been violating the treaty. Nonetheless, she said that a defective multilateral agreement was more desirable than no agreement at all. In any case, Germany’s commitment to the treaty was undaunted.

The United States has already left various international agreements under President Trump, including the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris climate accord and the INF treaty banning land-based mid-range nuclear weapons. The latter was concluded between the United States and the then Soviet Union and was considered the most significant nuclear disarmament agreement for Europe to date.

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