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Russia accuses US of undermining security with Open Skies treaty move

An OC-135B aircraft sits on an airfield at Ulan-Ude, Russia prior to an Open Skies flight. (Defense Threat Reduction Agency/Released)

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

A top Russian diplomat has accused the United States of seeking to undermine international security after President Donald Trump gave notice on withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, citing what U.S. officials said were repeated Russian violations.

Speaking on May 22, one day after officials said the United States would move to withdraw from the 18-year-old treaty, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Washington had provided no facts to back up its allegations that Moscow has repeatedly violated the terms of the Open Skies treaty, which allows members states to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories to observe military installations.

The U.S. claims “are totally unfounded,” he said.

The U.S. announcement is the latest move by the Trump administration to pull out of major international treaties, exits that have prompted watchdog groups and some members of the U.S. Congress to warn of the increased possibility of an arms race or accidental military confrontations.

In a statement on May 21, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will provide notification to the other 34 signatories that it will withdraw in six months, but may reconsider “should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”

Trump also gave mixed messages as he made the announcement, signaling that the move might be a bargaining ploy to get Russia to hold new talks on the treaty.

He said there was a “very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.” He did not give any further details.

The United States and Russia have a very good relationship, he told reporters on May 21, “but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty. So, until they adhere we will pull out.”

Signed in 1992, Open Skies entered into force a decade later and now has 35 members. The agreement aims to increase international stability by allowing nations to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories to observe military installations and other objects.

Pompeo alleged that examples of Russia’s violations include the denial of access to observation flights within a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Arms experts say this restriction may technically not fall under the agreement’s provision.

Pompeo said Russia has also placed restrictions on some flights around the Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad amid a military buildup that he said might include short-range nuclear-tipped missiles.

Russia has also designated an airfield in the annexed Crimean Peninsula as an Open Skies refueling base, Pompeo said. He alleged that was illegal attempt by Russia to cement its claim to the Ukrainian region, which Moscow seized in 2014.

‘Flagrantly And Continuously’ Violated

Pompeo insisted the United States and its partners that signed the treaty have lived up to their commitments and obligations, but Russia “has flagrantly and continuously” violated it in various ways for years.

The exit has upset European allies, many of whom are members of the treaty, and some members of the U.S. Congress.

France, Germany ,and eight other European countries said they regretted the U.S. move.

“We regret the announcement by the United States of its plan to pull out of the Open Skies treaty, even though we share the concerns about how the accord is being carried out by the Russian Federation,” the countries said in a joint statement issued by France’s Foreign Ministry.

Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the move to withdraw was illegal, arguing that existing law requires the White House to give Congress 120 days’ notice.

“There is something particularly dangerous about a president, a secretary of state, and a secretary of defense knowingly breaking the law in ways that jeopardize our safety and national security,” Engel said in a statement.

The threatened withdrawal was the latest effort by the Trump administration to unravel major global security treaties. Last year Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, also accusing Russia of repeated violations.

The last major bilateral arms control treaty, New START, is scheduled to expire in February 2021. While Russia has pushed for a five-year extension, the Trump administration has balked, saying it wants the deal to be broadened to include China.

That agreement caps the number of nuclear warheads and so-called delivery systems held by the United States and Russia.

Trump’s lead arms negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, said on May 21 that U.S. officials planned to hold talks with the Russians over the future of New START, even as the Chinese have signaled they do not plan to join that first meeting.

“The United States cannot keep participating in this treaty if Russia is going to violate it with impunity.” Billingslea said.

The idea of allowing Russia and the United States to conduct aerial reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory was first put forward by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in July 1955. But the Soviet Union balked at the idea.

There was no movement toward a treaty until 1989, when President George Bush breathed new life into it.