U.S. to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, May 27, 2020

U.S. to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty

The United States officially gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty in May, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies.

President Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said, “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the Treaty,” Pompeo added.

Pompeo cited Russian noncompliance with the accord as “making continued U.S. participation untenable.” The United States asserts that Russia has violated the agreement by restricting observation missions over Kaliningrad to no more than 500 kilometers, establishing a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and denying an overflight by the United States and Canada in September 2019.

Pompeo also alleged that “Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

When pressed to provide further information on this allegation on May 21, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.” He then added, “while not a violation per se, it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

Asked about what Russia would need to do to return to compliance with the Open Skies Treaty, Ford replied, “I would say that that’s a fact pattern we’ll have to deal with when we encounter it.”

The Defense Department said in a statement that “we will explore options to provide additional imagery products to Allies to mitigate any gaps that may result from this withdrawal.”

In response to the administration's arguments for withdrawing from the treaty, supporters of the pact argue that Russia's violations do not defeat the object and purpose of the agreement, the number of flights over Russia conducted by the United States and its partners exceed the number of Russian flights over the United States, all Russian flights over the United States are planned ahead of time and all images must be shared with the other parties to the agreement, the United States uses treaty flights to observe Russian infrastructure, and, if Russia remains a party to the treaty, it will still be able to conduct flights over U.S. bases and military deployments in Europe. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. exit from the agreement in a May 22 statement, calling it “a deplorable development for European security.”

The statement added that Russia’s future participation in the treaty “will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners.”

Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, 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. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any of the 34 states-parties.

Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 1,500 flights have taken place.—KINGSTON REIF, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant


Allies React to U.S. Withdrawal Announcement

U.S. allies expressed varied responses to the U.S. exit from the Open Skies Treaty, but none of them signaled support for the move or indicated that they plan to follow the United States out of the agreement.         

In a joint statement, 11 European countries—including Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden—expressed “regret” over the U.S. decision.

“We will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security,” they stated. “We reaffirm that this treaty remains functioning and useful.”

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), urged Russia to return to compliance with the treaty after a May 22 meeting of the North Atlantic Council. He said that the United States withdrew in a manner “consistent with Treaty provisions.”

Poland said in a statement that efforts to return Russia to compliance “have proved unsuccessful.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Germany, along with France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, had previously told Washington that Russian noncompliance concerns did not justify a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

Josep Borrell, foreign policy chief of the European Union, urged the Trump Administration to reconsider. “Withdrawing from a treaty is not the solution to address difficulties in its implementation and compliance by another party,” he said.

Before the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Trump administration consulted U.S. allies and other states-parties to the treaty, including by distributing a written questionnaire earlier this year. Throughout the process, allies expressed their support for continued U.S. participation in the treaty.

U.S. Open Skies Decision Breaks Law, Say Members of Congress

Several Democratic and Republican members of Congress excoriated the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty and accused the administration of breaking the law.

“The dangerous and misguided decision to abandon this international agreement cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.

Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who first sounded the alarm about the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw the United States from the treaty last October, stated that “the President’s reckless plan…directly harms our country’s security and breaks the law in the process.”

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required that the Trump administration notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which it failed to do.

Engel also wrote a letter with Chairman of the House Armed Services Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) to Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper demanding that the administration comply with the NDAA.

Engel and Smith stated that several letters they sent to the Trump administration regarding the Open Skies Treaty went unanswered.

“It is further evidence that the misguided and dangerous personal agendas of current and former influential Administration officials, not the security of the American people, dictate this President’s policy directions, and that they have come at the expense of abiding by the law,” they wrote.

Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said that he does “not accept the legitimacy of the administration’s reckless decision.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents Offutt Air Force Base where America’s OC-135B treaty aircraft are based, called the administration’s decision a “mistake.” He also urged that the administration adhere to the requirements in the defense authorization bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime treaty critic, voiced support for the withdrawal. He said that he was “particularly heartened” that the United States would now not have to fund the replacement efforts for the two treaty aircraft.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made.


Billingslea Lambastes New START

In his first public comments this month, Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea described his initial engagement with his Russian counterpart, criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and sketched out some of the administration’s goals for a new trilateral agreement.

In remarks at a May 21 event at the Hudson Institute, Billingslea said that he and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov agreed in a May 8 phone call “to meet, talk about our respective concerns and objectives, and find a way forward to begin negotiations” on a new arms control agreement.

“So, we have settled on a venue, and we are working on an agenda based on the exchange of views that has taken place,” he added. The location of the dialogue is most likely to be Vienna.

On New START, which expires in February 2021 unless President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years, Billingslea said that “potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control.”

Russia has stated that it is ready to extend New START without any preconditions, but the Trump administration remains undecided on the treaty’s fate.

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short-notice, on-site inspections.

“We want to understand why the Russians are so desperate for extension, and we want the Russians to explain to us why this is in our interest to do it,” Billingslea said in an earlier interview with The Washington Times on May 7.

“One main failing of New START, among the many problems with it, is that it does not include the Chinese,” Billingslea told the newspaper.

China has repeatedly stated that it “has no intention to take part in a trilateral arms control negotiation.”

Andrea Thompson, who served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security until last October, said on May 14 “that China’s not going to come to the table before” New START expires next February. “There’s no incentive for them to come to the table,” she said, citing China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

Billingslea, however, insisted that Beijing could be incentivized to come to the negotiating table.

“If China wants to be a great power, and we know it has that self-image, it needs to behave like one,” he said at the Hudson Institute on May 21. “It should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally with the Russians.”

Billingslea added that “Russia must help bring China to the negotiating table.” Moscow has previously said that it will not try to convince China to the table.

He asserted that the United States would hold Russia to its “public commitments to multilateralizing the next treaty after New START.” Moscow has long said that future arms control agreements should include additional nuclear-armed states, including U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom.

In addition, Billingslea expressed concern about Russia’s development of new strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems, suggesting that Moscow “should simply wrap those programs up and discard them.”

Last November, Russia said that two of the systems—the Sarmat, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle—would count under New START.

Billingslea also said that a new agreement would need to include Russia’s large arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons as well as stronger verification measures than those contained in New START.

Billingslea did not say what the United States might be prepared to put on the table in return for limits on additional Russian weapons or concessions from China. Nor did he clarify what precisely that administration is seeking from China on arms control.

Russia has frequently raised missile defense as an issue that must be on the table in the next round of arms control talks, but Billingslea said that he did not foresee the United States agreeing to limitations on missile defense.

Billingslea claimed that the United States is in a strong negotiating position and could win a new arms race if necessary.

“We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

Russia criticized Billingslea’s interview with The Washington Times. “The unmistakable impression” is that Billingslea “has not been brought up to speed on his new job,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 14.

She also noted that the Trump administration’s desire to include China in arms control talks was “far-fetched.”

Trump and Putin discussed arms control on a May 7 phone call.

“President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” said the White House in a statement following the call. The statement made no mention of New START.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two presidents agreed to work to resolve “the urgent problems of our time, including maintaining strategic stability.”

The United States and Russia last held a strategic security dialogue in January.


P5 Arms Control Summit in the Works

The United States agreed to Russia’s January proposal that the heads of state of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—hold a summit to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control.

“We recently delivered a message to President Putin from President Trump agreeing that a P5 meeting was a good idea,” said U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan in a May 5 interview.

“It’s my understanding that the substance and logistics of such a meeting are under consideration,” Sullivan added.

On April 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that all parties agreed that the summit “must be face-to-face.” He added two days later that “the conceptual content” of the summit is in the works.

“There is agreement, an understanding,” Lavrov said, “that it should be devoted to all the key problems of the modern world, strategic stability, and global security in all its dimensions.”

Putin first proposed the idea of a P5 summit in January to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control. Moscow initially suggested that it take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, though that tentative plan has likely changed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Billingslea Nominated for Top Arms Control Job at State

In May, President Trump nominated Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special envoy for arms control, for the top arms control position at the State Department. If confirmed, Billingslea would have an even larger say in determining the administration’s arms control policy and the future of the last remaining agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

The nomination is likely to be controversial in the Senate given Billingslea’s reputation as a critic of arms control and past role in the Pentagon’s use of interrogation techniques Congress later banned as torture.

After appointing Billingslea as special presidential representative for arms control in April, Trump formally put his name forward for the vacant post of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security on May 1. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Billingslea.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not commented on Billingslea’s latest nomination, though he strongly denounced Billingslea’s appointment as special envoy in April.

“This is not who should be put in charge of our nuclear diplomacy,” Menendez said at the time.

Billingslea previously served as assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. He was an advisor to 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.

In 2019, Trump nominated Billingslea for the top human rights post at the State Department. But his nomination stalled and was returned to the president in early 2020 amid concerns about his role in promoting enhanced interrogation techniques while serving in the Defense Department from 2002 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration.

FACT FILE: Open Skies Flights, 2002-2019



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