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US permanently quitting Open Skies mutual surveillance treaty with Russia, reports say

Open Skies OC-135B plane. (U.S. Air Force/Released)
May 27, 2021

The U.S. on Thursday cemented its exit from the Treaty on Open Skies, a treaty that allows participating nations to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over one another to provide mutual transparency of their military activities.

The Associated Press reported U.S. officials said Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Russians that the administration had decided not to reenter the treaty following a review of former President Donald Trump’s administration’s decision to leave the treaty one year ago.

The U.S. had begun the process to withdraw from the treaty in May 2020 under President Donald Trump. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo submitted a six-month notice of the U.S. intent to leave the treaty. The Trump administration cited Russian non-compliance with the agreement as their reason for backing out of the treaty.

On Thursday, Washington Post reporter John Hudson also tweeted a State Department spokesperson’s quote revealing the Trump-era move to leave the Open Skies Treaty would be made permanent under President Joe Biden.

Hudson’s tweet cited a State Department spokesperson who said, “The United States regrets that the Treaty on Open Skies has been undermined by Russian violations. In concluding its review of the treaty, the United States therefore does not intend to seek to rejoin it, given Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance. Further, Russia’s behavior, including its recent actions with respect to Ukraine, is not that of a partner committed to confidence-building.”

The statement makes reference to a recent mass Russian troop build-up on the Ukrainian border that lasted several weeks beginning in late March. By mid-April, an estimated 100,000 Russian troops had gathered within a few miles of Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia later claimed the mass troop buildup was just part of a surprise readiness check and that Russian troops would withdraw back to their home bases by May 1. As of the first week of May, despite claiming its troops withdrew, U.S. defense officials said an estimated 80,000 Russian troops remained near the Ukrainian border.

The Biden administration’s decision regarding the Open Skies treaty comes two days after the Biden White House announced Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Geneva, Switzerland next month. The June 16 meeting will be the first in-person meeting between Biden and Putin since Biden took office in January.

In April, the Biden administration announced sanctions and the expulsions of Russian diplomats after it had assessed Russia had interfered in the 2020 election and the widespread SolarWinds hack, which affected U.S. government agencies. Those new sanctions are set to take effect on June 14, just two days before Biden and Putin’s planned meeting.

Russia retaliated to Biden’s new round of sanctions by announcing plans to expel U.S. diplomats from Russia.