U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, Oct. 17, 2019

Trump Poised to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty

The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, according to lawmakers and media reports. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, first sounded the public alarm in an Oct. 7 letter to National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that the Trump Administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and strongly urge you against such a reckless action,” Rep. Engel wrote. “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests.”

Slate columnist Fred Kaplan reported Oct. 9 that former National Security Advisor John Bolton pushed for withdrawing from the treaty before departing the administration. Following Bolton’s departure in September, White House staff continued to advocate for withdrawal and convinced President Trump to sign a memorandum expressing his intent to exit the treaty. The Omaha World-Herald reported that the signed document directed a withdrawal by Oct. 26.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) joined Rep. Engel in an Oct. 8 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper denouncing a possible withdrawal. The lawmakers wrote that “pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement, would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to Putin.” They also noted that the treaty “has been an essential tool for United States efforts to constrain Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

The United States and several allies in December 2018 conducted an “extraordinary flight” over eastern Ukraine under the Open Skies Treaty. The flight followed a Russian attack in late November 2018 on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea.

Republican lawmakers also expressed concern about ditching the treaty. In an Oct. 8 statement, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) stated that he has “yet to see a compelling reason to withdraw from Open Skies” given the “valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields” the United States gains from the treaty.

Signed in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed, observation flights over the others’ entire territories in order to collect data on military forces and activities. The treaty entered into force in January 2002 and currently has 34 states-parties, including the United States and Russia.

According to the treaty, states-parties must give one another 72 hours advance notice before conducting an overflight. At least 24 hours in advance of the flight, the observing state-party will supply its flight plan, which the host state-party can only modify for safety or logistical reasons. No territory is off-limits under the treaty. Each participating country is assigned a quota of overflights it can conduct and a quota, based on its geographic size, of overflights it must accept every year.

Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States. After the overflight, the information collected must be provided to all states-parties.

In recent years, disputes over implementation and concerns from some U.S. officials and lawmakers about the value of the treaty have threatened to derail the pact.

For example, Washington has raised concerns about Russian compliance with the treaty, citing, in particular, Russia's restricting of observation flights over Kaliningrad to no more than 500 kilometers and within a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In response, the United States has restricted flights over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields in Fort Greely, Alaska.

The House-passed version of the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization act included a provision that would reaffirm Congress’ commitment to the treaty and prohibit the use of funds to suspend, terminate, or withdraw from the agreement unless “certain certification requirements are made.” The Senate version of the bill did not include a similar provision. The House and Senate continue to negotiate a final version of the bill.—KINGSTON REIF, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant


NATO Rejects Russian Proposal of Moratorium on INF Range Missiles

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) rejected an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin in September to impose a moratorium on deploying ground-launched intermediate-range missiles previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The proposal, according to NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu, was not “a credible offer” and “ignored the reality on the ground.” Lungescu specifically pointed to Russia’s deployment of the formerly illegal ground-launched cruise missile—known as the 9M729 by the United States and the SSC-8 by NATO—as a reason why Putin’s offer was not legitimate. “We call once again on Russia to behave like a responsible international actor,” Lungescu said when rejecting Moscow’s pitch on Sept. 26.

Germany, a NATO ally, said that it planned to “analyze” the letter. A source within the German Cabinet of Ministers told the Russian news agency TASS that, “We are always open for dialogue with Russia, if it is accompanied by a serious commitment to clear up existing issues and resolve problems.”

Russia has repeatedly floated the moratorium proposal in the wake of the Trump administration’s announcement that it would withdraw from the INF Treaty. The treaty, signed in 1987, led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet Union nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

At the beginning of October, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov called for the two countries to “come to grips” on the issue of deploying ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. He further said, “In case the United States deploy these types of missiles very close to our borders, we will be forced to protect our country, we will be forced to resort to the necessary measures.”

His comments echo those made by Putin after the Aug. 18 U.S. test of a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile that would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty. “We will produce such [ground-launched intermediate-range] missiles,” Putin said, “but we will not deploy them in the regions where no ground-based missile systems of this class manufactured by the U.S. have emerged.”

DOD Officials Weigh-In on INF Range Missiles

During his confirmation hearing on Sept. 12, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy stated that in the absence of the INF Treaty, the Army can now pursue longer-range conventional missiles to counter China in the Pacific region.

In an exchange with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), McCarthy argued that “outside the INF Treaty,” the missiles set to replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) “can have a range in the upwards of 600 kilometers.” Asked by Sen. Hawley if “conventional INF range missiles would significantly enhance the Army’s ability to perform that mission of blunting” a potential Chinese attack in the Pacific, in particular against Taiwan, McCarthy responded affirmatively.

McCarthy emphasized that these missiles will be part of “an array of capabilities” that will “change the geometry within Southeast Asia.” Following the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty Aug. 2, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that he would like to see the deployment of U.S. conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, ideally as soon as possible. However, Australia and South Korea said that they were not considering such deployments.

Flight tests of the replacement for ATACMS, called the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), were originally scheduled for the summer of 2019, but have been delayed until the end of the year. PrSM, initially designed with a range under 500 kilometers, is projected to become operational in 2023.

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood said on Sept. 30 that although the Pentagon has “started development programs on intermediate-range missiles,” the Pentagon is “very early in the research and development phase” and doesn’t “have any specific plans at this time for deployments anywhere.”


Trump Administration Continues to Seek “New Era” Arms Control Deal

The United States continues to seek a new, more comprehensive arms control agreement with Russia and China at the expense of focusing on a five-year extension of New START, according to U.S. and Russian officials.

In a statement at the UN First Committee meeting Oct. 10, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Defense Policy, Emerging Threats, and Outreach Thomas DiNanno reiterated that the administration is seeking “a new era of arms control, one in which Russia and China are at the negotiating table and willing to reduce nuclear risks rather than heighten them.”

“Today, the Cold War approach, with its bilateral treaties that covered limited types of nuclear weapons or only certain ranges of adversary missiles, is no longer sufficient,” he added.

DiNanno did not explain how the administration would achieve a broader deal or say whether it has tabled any proposals with Russia or China.

DiNanno was also silent on whether the administration would seek to extend New START. He did not mention the treaty except to say that some of the new long-range nuclear delivery systems Russia is developing would not be subject to the agreement.

Bolton said before his departure from the administration that New START is “unlikely to be extended.”

Following a Sept. 27 meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that while Russia is ready to start talks on extending New START, Pompeo confirmed “the U.S. position according to which it has become difficult for the U.S. and Russia to do this [arms control] alone.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called on the United States “to stop wasting time” regarding an extension of New START in an Oct. 11 interview. “There is almost no time left” before the treaty expires, he said. “At least, it is important to understand what they plan to do with the treaty.”

Ryabkov added that “The extension period [of up to five years] is subject to discussion—we are poised to exercise flexibility in this respect.”

Putin said Oct. 13 that “there has been no answer so far” from the United States on Russia’s proposal to begin talks on an extension. “Our understanding is that they have not made up their minds yet as to whether they need to extend the treaty or not,” he added. “But if this treaty is not extended, the world will have no means of limiting the number of offensive weapons, and this is bad news.”

Vladimir Yermakov, Director of the Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, told the First Committee in an Oct. 11 statement that while it is essential that New START be extended, “Further progress in nuclear arms reduction on the bilateral Russia-U.S. basis has run its course.”

A future multilateral process should address “all factors affecting strategic stability,” he said, including “unrestricted deployment of the U.S. global Missile Defense, development of high-precision strategic offensive non-nuclear weapons, prospects for deployment of strike weapons in outer space, destruction of the international system of arms control treaties and agreements, attempts to weaken defense potential of other countries by using illegitimate methods of unilateral pressure bypassing the UN Security Council.”

FU Cong, Director-General of the Department of Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, reiterated China’s position that it is not interested in joining multilateral talks with the United States and Russia on arms control at this time.

“As the state with the largest and most advanced nuclear arsenal, the U.S. should earnestly fulfill its special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament by responding to the Russian appeal for extending the New START Treaty, while substantially reducing its gigantic nuclear arsenal and creating favorable conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join in multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” Cong said. “Pending lowering its nuclear arsenal to the level of China's, any and all U.S. accusations targeting the Chinese military strength cannot but be as hypocritical and hollow as they are feeble and futile.”

State Department Releases Data on U.S. and Russian Nuclear Arsenals

The State Department Oct. 3 released updated information on the current status of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces limited by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Current as of Sept. 1, the data show the United States as possessing 1,378 warheads, 668 missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 missile launchers and bombers. Meanwhile, Russia has 1,426 warheads, 513 missiles and heavy bombers, and 757 missile launchers and bombers.

New START caps the deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads, 700 missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 missile launchers and bombers.

The treaty is set to expire Feb. 5, 2021, unless Presidents Trump and Putin decide to extend it by five years as allowed by the agreement.

The State Department also updated its tally of the number of inspections conducted by each country. Thus far this year, Washington has conducted 14 inspections in Russia, and Moscow has conducted 13 inspections in the United States. A total of 18,842 notifications have also been exchanged.

Finnish President Publicly Urges New START Extension

The president of Finland became the first head of state to publicly call for an extension of New START in a public appearance with President Trump.

During a joint news conference Oct. 2, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said, “Some of us remember the worst years of Cold War in 1960s. There was no agreement at all. Just Cold War. We can't let the situation return no agreement at all about arms control. And that is why it is important to try to negotiate new agreements and to continue the New START Agreement.”

President Trump did not respond to Niinistö’s comments on the treaty.


O’Brien in as National Security Advisor, Thompson out as Under Secretary for Arms Control

Following John Bolton’s abrupt departure as National Security Advisor on Sept. 10, President Trump tapped Robert O’Brien for the post a week later.

At the time of his appointment, O’Brien was Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department. He previously held other roles in the department, including serving as a U.S. Representative to the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly on which he worked alongside Bolton.

On Sept. 20, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the departure of Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. In his statement, Pompeo did not mention a reason for her departure. “Her wealth of knowledge, experience, and leadership skills will be missed,” Pompeo said before thanking her for her service.

Thompson is expected to leave her post by the end of the month. It is not yet clear who will take the lead role in any future U.S.-Russian strategic security discussions or possible arms control negotiations.

U.S. Confirms Cause of August Explosion in Russia

The United States has determined that an Aug. 8 explosion near a Russian missile test site on the White Sea occurred during the recovery of a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

State Department official Thomas DiNanno told the First Committee Oct. 10 “that the explosion near Nenoksa, Russia, was the result of a nuclear reaction that occurred during the recovery of a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile. The missile remained on the bed of the White Sea since its failed test early last year, in close proximity to a major population center.”

On Aug. 8, a mysterious blast occurred at the Nenoksa Missile Test Site, on the coast of the White Sea. According to a statement from Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) two days later, five employees died in the accident, which involved “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit.” Two military personnel also reportedly died from the blast.

Some U.S. nuclear experts and intelligence officials initially assessed that the accident likely involved a failed test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile known as the 9M730 Buresvestnik by Russia and the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO. Later reports on U.S. intelligence assessments, now confirmed by DiNanno, said the incident was caused by a recovery mission to salvage such a missile from the ocean floor following a failed test.

“Russia…has much to answer for regarding the August 8th ‘Skyfall’ incident,” DiNanno said.



Oct. 7-Nov. 8 74th Session of the UN First Committee
Oct. 24-30 UN Disarmament Week
Nov. 7-9 The Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, Moscow
Dec. 3-4 NATO Heads of State and Government Meeting, London