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Russia to withdraw from Open Skies Treaty

Russia announced plans to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, two months after U.S. President Donald Trump's administration abandoned it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking with his Security Council by video link
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking with his Security Council by video link (AN/Kremlin)

Russia announced plans on Friday to withdraw from an international treaty that permits mutual unarmed surveillance flights over 34 nations, two months after U.S. President Donald Trump's administration abandoned it.

The decision escalates military tensions between Moscow and Washington just as President-elect Joe Biden is poised to significantly reverse Trump's "America First" isolationist policies by stressing the need for restored American leadership and cooperation abroad.

Russia's Foreign Ministry cited a "lack of progress in eliminating the hindrances for further functioning of the treaty under the new circumstances." It said the United States' formal withdrawal on November 22 from the Open Skies Treaty — which took effect in 2002, a decade after it was first signed, to prevent more misunderstandings that could lead to war — occurred "under an artificial pretext."

Trump had told other signatories that a U.S. exit was justified by Russian treaty violations, but he also predicted that pulling out of the treaty would increase the chances that Moscow negotiators would “come back and want to make a deal.” That failed to happen. Trump made the same flawed argument when he said the United States would renege on its commitment to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

"This essentially destroyed the balance of interests of the state parties reached when the treaty was signed, inflicted a severe damage to its functioning and undermined the role of the Open Skies Treaty as a confidence and security building measure," the ministry said.

"The Russian side put forward specific proposals consistent with the fundamental provisions of the treaty aimed at preserving its viability under the new circumstances," it said. "We state with regret that they found no support on the part of the U.S. allies."

Potential bargaining chip

Russia's next steps would be to send official notification to the treaty's other signatories that it intends to withdraw — just as Trump did in May of last year — kicking off a process that would be completed six months later.

Though the United States has spy satellites to fill in some of the work of the surveillance planes, the imagery from U.S. surveillance flights over Russia has also benefited European allies that share borders with Russia and worry about its potential troop movements.

Trump also allowed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the United States to expire in 2019, ending a key plank of Cold War-era nuclear arms control and prompting fears of a new global arms race amid rising geopolitical tensions.

But Russia's move to walk away from the Open Skies Treaty also could be used to strengthen its hand when the incoming Biden administration sits down over the coming weeks to reopen negotiations towards a five-year extension to the last remaining U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control pact: the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which took effect in February 2011.

That is due to expire exactly three weeks from now, on February 5. In December 2019, Putin offered to immediately renew it, without any preconditions or more discussions, and well ahead of its expiration. Trump did not take him up 0n the offer, however, saying China also should have to take part in the nuclear pact. It replaced the START Treaty, which was in effect from 2004 to 2009.