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US lawmaker calls White House plan to withdraw from open skies treaty ‘reckless’

U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (Thomas Altfather Good/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A top U.S. congressional Democratic lawmaker says President Donald Trump’s administration is looking at withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, the latest in a series of major arms-control and disarmament accords that are on the verge of collapse.

There was no immediate comment or confirmation from the White House or the Pentagon to the claim made in a letter released on October 7 by Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“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,” Engel wrote in a letter to White House national-security adviser Robert O’Brien.

“American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests,” he wrote.

Signed by 34 countries including Russia, the 14-year-old Open Skies Treaty aims to increase international stability by allowing signatory states to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories, to observe military installations and other objects.

Some U.S. lawmakers and military officials have in the past voiced allegations that Russia was conducting overflights of U.S. territory using advanced camera technology that were more intrusive than past flights.

U.S. administration officials did block a Russian plane using that technology from flying in 2016. Officials later relented, though another delay was imposed at the behest of Republican lawmakers in 2018. O’Brien’s predecessor as national-security adviser, John Bolton, was an adamant opponent of the treaty.

Russia’s first such flight with the new technology took place in April 2019.

U.S. officials have also said Russia had blocked U.S. flights near Kaliningrad, the Baltic Sea exclave where Russia has a major naval facility, as well as sophisticated missile and antiaircraft systems.

They have also said Russia has blocked U.S. flights over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions of Georgia that have had de facto independence since the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.

In September 2018, after Russia complained about U.S. delays in allowing the Russian flight, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a vocal opponent of the treaty, raised the issue of Russian restrictions. “The Open Skies Treaty is out of date and favors Russia, and the best way forward is to leave it,” he said.

The treaty is one of several arms-control agreements that are on the verge of collapse, or have already collapsed. Earlier this year, after years of accusations toward Moscow, the Trump administration pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. And the New START treaty, which puts limits on the entire nuclear arsenals for both Russia and the United States, is due to expire in 2021, unless the two sides agree to extend it.