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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Potential U.S. Open Skies Withdrawal Announcement Coming Soon | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch
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Potential U.S. Open Skies Withdrawal Announcement Coming Soon

The United States could officially submit its intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty by the end of September, despite strong support for the treaty in Congress and from allies and former U.S. officials.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have decided to move forward with a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, the Guardian reported April 5. The report indicated that a statement of intent would be forthcoming soon, with official notification to withdraw coming likely by the end of September. Per the treaty text, the U.S. withdrawal decision would take effect six months after the official notice.

On April 7, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) released a statement urging the Trump administration not to withdraw.

“This decision would have far-reaching, negative repercussions for our European allies, who rely on this Treaty to keep Russia accountable for its military actions in the region,” they wrote. “During a time when we need to push back against Russian aggression, we cannot continue to undermine our alliances—which is exactly what U.S. withdrawal from this Treaty would do.”

On April 6, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn made public a March letter to President Trump, Pompeo, Esper, and National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien expressing their recommendation that the United States remain party to the Open Skies Treaty.

Schulz, Perry, and Nunn, however, argued that concerns about Russian compliance with the treaty “can and should be solved through professional, pragmatic diplomacy, not by abandoning treaty commitments.”

The United States asserts that Russia is violating the agreement by restricting observation missions over Kaliningrad to flying no more than 500 kilometers and by establishing a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

According to an April 8 report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, a treaty flight by Estonia, Lithuania, and the United States in February over the Kaliningrad enclave flew for more than 500 kilometers for the first time since Moscow imposed the sublimit in 2014.

Pompeo and Esper are proceeding with the process to withdraw even though a meeting of top officials on the National Security Council (NSC) on the issue has not taken place, according to an April 12 report in The Hill. NSC meetings on the future of the treaty had originally been planned for February and March but were canceled.

According to a House aide cited by the Hill, the apparent “decision to withdraw prompted strong objection from the UK, France, Germany, and Poland.”

A State Department official told the news outlet that the administration is “currently reviewing the costs and benefits associated with our participation and considering all options under the treaty to achieve our national security objectives.”

On April 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented, “It is more and more doubtful” that the United States will remain party to the Open Skies Treaty. Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, cast doubt on whether Moscow would continue adhering to the treaty should Washington withdraw. “I am not sure that without U.S. the Treaty will constitute interests for us. Russia would be discriminated against,” he tweeted April 1.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said April 21 that he doubted Russia would withdraw from the treaty if the United States does. He said Russia’s reaction “reaction to Washington’s possible decisions will depend on the wording of this decision, on what it exactly means.”

Signed in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed, observation flights over the others’ entire territories 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. Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States.

Treaty flights were suspended in late-March through April 26 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Whether the flight suspension will continue beyond April was not clear at the time of publication.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant


Trump Appoints Special Arms Control Envoy

President Trump has officially appointed a special envoy to negotiate an unprecedented trilateral arms control deal with Russia and China as the fate of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining U.S.-Russian arms control agreement, hangs in the balance.

Marshall Billingslea, previously assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, will lead arms control negotiations on behalf of the United States as Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, according to an April 10 statement by the State Department.

“President Trump has charged this Administration with beginning a new chapter by seeking a new era of arms control that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past,” the department said. “The appointment of Marshall Billingslea reaffirms the commitment to that mission.”

Billingslea was a former advisor to the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed U.S. ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and supported U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, strongly denounced Billingslea’s appointment, stating, “This terrible decision is emblematic both of this administration’s willingness to sidestep the Senate’s constitutionally-mandated role of nominee advice and consent, and the haphazard, careless way the administration treats nuclear diplomacy.”

“This is not who should be put in charge of our nuclear diplomacy,” he said.

New START, which expires in February 2021, limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads, 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers and heavy bombers, and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. It can be extended by up to five years if both President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree.

The Trump administration still has yet to decide whether to extend the treaty. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said April 22 that the administration is “continuing to review the possibility of an extension of the New START Treaty.” He added that, in light of Billingslea’s appointment as well as recent communication between Pompeo and Lavrov, “there will be movement and discussion soon that will illuminate this issue more for all of us.”

U.S. Reiterates Call for Broader Arms Control

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an April 17 call that “any future arms control talks must be based on President Trump’s vision for a trilateral arms control agreement that includes both Russia and China.”

According to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry after the call, Lavrov “emphasized that Russia is ready to work on new nuclear weapons control agreements, but that it is still important to preserve the New START Treaty as the cornerstone of global security until they are developed, which will inevitably take time.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also urged the Trump administration to issue “a speedy response in the affirmative” to Moscow’s offer to unconditionally extend the treaty in a statement on the 10th anniversary of New START’s signing April 8.

“We are convinced that this would meet the interests of both Russia and the United States, as well as those of the entire international community, guarantee predictability in the nuclear weapons sphere, and help maintain strategic stability,” the ministry wrote.

For the anniversary, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who signed the treaty, penned an op-ed with Russian news agency TASS in which he lambasted Washington for its “unwillingness” to agree to a five-year extension of New START. “Actions on destruction of this document—on its non-extension—are taken not by Moscow.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed this assertion the same day.

In response, a State Department spokesperson told TASS April 9 that “the Administration is evaluating the possibility of an extension of the New START Treaty, taking into account the threats we face today, the changing security environment, and Russia’s statement that it has no preconditions to extension.”

Presidents Trump and Putin held a call April 12, during which they discussed “current issues of ensuring strategic security,” according to a statement from the Kremlin. Peskov later clarified that New START was a point of discussion.

Citing the Trump administration’s continued indecision on the future of the treaty, Ryabkov said April 16 that “all the signs” indicate the United States “is on the threshold of making a decision not to extend this document.”

For its part, China has repeatedly opposed the idea of a trilateral arms control agreement. China has also not responded thus far to a December 2019 U.S. offer for a bilateral dialogue on strategic security.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged an extension of New START April 9. “China supports Russia and the U.S. in maintaining dialogue on the New START and extending the treaty at an early date for the sake of international peace and security,” he said.

State Department Releases New Paper on “Next Generation Arms Control”

Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford outlined the Trump administration’s priorities for “next-generation arms control” with Russia and China in an April 6 paper.

Ford, who is currently performing the duties of the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that the next stage of arms control must continue to control Russia’s deployed strategic weapons currently limited by New START as well as address new Russian strategic delivery systems and Russia’s large and growing arsenal of nonstrategic weapons. Ford also said that a future agreement must “rein in” China’s “destabilizing nuclear buildup.”

Ford, however, did not explain how the administration plans to convince Russia to limit additional types of nuclear weapons, convince China to participate in arms control for the first time, or describe what the United States would be prepared to include in a new agreement.

President Trump first proposed a trilateral approach to arms control over a year ago, but the administration has yet to unveil a specific proposal and provided no timeline for when it might do so.

Ford also did not address the future of New START.

U.S., Russia Exchange Data on Strategic Arsenals

Under New START, the United States and Russia exchange data every six months on the exact number of limited warheads and delivery systems. The latest data exchange demonstrates that the treaty is working, as both Moscow and Washington fall at or under the imposed limits.

According to the latest New START data exchange current as of March 1 and publicly released April 1, the United States deployed 1,372 warheads on 655 missiles and heavy bombers and has 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers and bombers. Russia deployed 1,326 warheads on 485 delivery systems and has 754 deployed and nondeployed launchers and bombers.

The reported Russian number of deployed strategic warheads is the lowest since the treaty entered into force in February 2011.

On April 16, the State Department also updated the number of notifications exchanged between the two countries on the numbers, types, and locations of treaty-limited arms to 19,916. The department noted that, in year 10 of the treaty which began Feb. 5, the United States and Russia have each conducted two on-site inspections out of the 18 they are each allowed every year. The exchange of this information is greatly valued by the military as it increases transparency and stability.

Further inspections have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), the implementing body of New START, postponed its March meeting until the fall at the earliest.

Ryabkov said March 29 that “the decision on suspending inspections under the New START as well as the decision on postponing the meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, scheduled for the second half of March, was made upon the sides’ agreement.” He stated that the fall BCC meeting “will be the last meeting unless the treaty is extended.”

Whether the inspection suspension will continue beyond May 1 was not clear at the time of publication.


Strategic Security Dialogue to Resume

While the United States and Russia remain at odds over the future of New START, the countries could soon resume their dialogue on strategic security, with a specific focus on space security.

The last round of the U.S.-Russian strategic security dialogue took place Jan. 16 in Vienna, during which the United States and Russia agreed to begin “expert-level engagement on particular topics in the near future.”

Ford commented April 6 that one of those topics involved “a space dialogue.”

The United States and Russia have agreed to establish a working group to discuss space issues, according to comments made by Ryabkov April 11. Additional details, such as a time and date for the discussion, have not been publicly shared.

“The Russian side has handed in its proposals on the essence of this work to the U.S. side and now expects the response,” Ryabkov said.

Lavrov noted April 14 that, in a call weeks earlier with Pompeo, the two had discussed resuming the talks on “strategic stability” more generally and arms control specifically. Pompeo and Lavrov spoke most recently April 17, after which the State Department released a statement saying that they “discussed next steps in the bilateral Strategic Security Dialogue, taking into account the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On April 13, Lavrov reiterated that Russia was prepared to discuss hypersonic weapons in the context of the strategic security talks.

Russia Tests Anti-Satellite Missile, U.S. Says

Russia conducted a test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile April 15, according to a statement by U.S. Space Command.

Reports stated that the missile launched from the Plesetsk test site and traveled 3,000 kilometers before landing in the Laptev Sea.

The test “provides yet another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious, and growing,” said Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command. Raymond added that the “test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs.”

The April test likely involved the PL-19 Nudol, a variant of the anti-ballistic missile system designed to protect Moscow. Russia has now tested the Nudol system 8 times since 2014, with the last six tests deemed successful.

U.S. Space Command noted that the Nudol test came after maneuvers in February of two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and Cosmos 2543, “near a U.S. Government satellite that would be interpreted as irresponsible and potentially threatening in any other domain.” Russia launched Cosmos 2542 in November 2019, and that satellite in December released Cosmos 2543.

Ryabkov responded April 16 that Moscow remains committed to not being the first to place weapons in space and criticized the United States for refusing to engage with Russia on the subject.

“If the United States rejects this proposal, the natural conclusion that we draw is that they headed for the creation of attack systems for deployment in outer space,” Ryabkov said.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also commented April 17 on Raymond’s statement, saying, “All such anti-Russia attacks are nothing but a U.S. attempt to distract the international community from real threats in outer space, to justify their steps on deploying weapons in outer space and to get additional funding to that effect.”

U.S. Cites Concerns with Russian Treaty Compliance

The State Department, for the second year in a row, raised concerns about possible nuclear testing by Russia in violation of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The department released April 15 the executive summary of an annual report titled, “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.” Covering 2019 activities, the report states that the United States “assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.”

The State Department first raised this concern in last year’s compliance report. That report stated that “during the 1995–2018 timeframe, Russia probably conducted nuclear weapons-related tests at the Novaya Zemlya Nuclear Test Site.” Further information was not provided, and experts therefore cast doubt on the allegation.

Last year’s report stated that, despite renewing a nuclear testing moratorium in 1996, Russia has undertaken some activities that “have demonstrated a failure to adhere to the U.S. ‘zero-yield’ standard.” This year’s report repeated that assertion but added that “the United States does not know how many, if any, supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.”

The CTBT prohibits all nuclear test explosions, no matter what the yield. Russian ratified the treaty in 2000. The compliance report also raises concerns about Russian compliance with the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which prohibits nuclear tests with explosive yields exceeding 150 kilotons.

Ryabkov responded to the report April 16, asserting that Russia “did not take any steps that would include elements of deviation from our obligations stemming from our unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and from our ratification” of the CTBT. He countered with the allegation that the United States “may well be bringing their test site in Nevada on high alert.”

The new report also covers 2019 compliance with New START and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Russia is still adhering to its commitments under New START, according to the report. As for the INF Treaty, the State Department outlined the process of U.S. withdrawal from the accord, citing Russia’s violation of the agreement by testing, producing, and fielding an illegal ground-launched cruise missile named the 9M729. The United States officially withdrew from the treaty in August 2019.

The report asserts that the United States remains compliant with all of its treaty obligations.




May 11 25th anniversary of NPT’s indefinite extension
June 2 18th anniversary of the signing of SORT
June 10-12 46th G-7 Summit, Camp David (via teleconference)
June 13 18th anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty