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U.S. Blames Russia for U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty

May 22, 2020 (EIRNS)—The Trump Administration announced yesterday, and has notified treaty participants to such effect, that the United States has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty (OST), effective in six months, as per treaty provisions. All media reporting on this decision notes that this is the third treaty on arms control/strategic stability that the U.S. has pulled out of since Donald Trump has been President, the first two being the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. The reality, however, is that these withdrawals are the continuation of a process that began with the G.W. Bush Administration decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, which helped set off a deterioration in the global security environment that has been underway ever since. When Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the new generation of strategic systems in his March 2018 speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, he pointed out that the decision to develop those systems was prompted by the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

The withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty follows the same modus operandi that was used for the INF Treaty withdrawal: The claim was that repeated Russian violations of the treaty made continued U.S. participation in it untenable and against U.S. national security interests. President Trump at least left the door open to a U.S. return to the treaty, should the Russians stop (allegedly) violating it. “Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty. So until they adhere, we will pull out, but there’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together,” Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for Michigan. “So I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they [the Russians] are going to come back and want to make a deal,” Trump said. He added: “I think something very positive will work.”

At a State Department briefing afterward, Christopher Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, claimed that Russian behavior under OST was within “a broader context in which Russia is clearly no longer committed to cooperative security in the way that one had hoped that it would have been.” Russia’s alleged violations of the OST “is just one instance in a pattern of Russian violations of its arms control nonproliferation and disarmament obligations and commitments that affect European security and affect the arms control architecture.” This included Russia’s alleged violations of the INF Treaty, its actions against Georgia and Ukraine, its suspension (which Ford claimed wasn’t really legal) of its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty as its “selective implementation” of the Vienna Document regarding notification of military exercises.

Specific to the OST, Ford claimed that from the outset of the treaty, “Russia has failed properly to provide airspace and airfield information, which is inconsistent with treaty obligations, and it’s been steadily documented ever since that a series of shifting violations of the treaty have simply kept occurring.” Ford claimed that the message from Moscow on implementation of the OST is that “yes, you can fly anywhere you want and look at anything you like at any time except for the things we don’t wish you to see. And that kind of selective limitation clearly cuts at the heart of the confidence-building that is the purpose of the Open Skies Treaty.”

The U.S. Administration is even claiming that Russia is using OST imagery to plan attacks on civilian infrastructure with precision-guided missiles. When pressed, however, Ford refused to provide any evidence of this, and was forced to admit that there are no limits in the treaty on the end-uses of OST imagery, but “if a state party turns around and uses that imagery to support offensive military targeting, clearly that is nonetheless problematic, and represents a way in which Russia has been very deliberately trying to twist the treaty in ways that are very much not conducive to our security interests, or those of other partners in the treaty itself.”

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