WASHINGTON – The United States has told Russia that it will not rejoin an arms control agreement that allows member countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territory and has accused Moscow of violating the agreement.
The decision not to re-enter the Open Skies Treaty came just weeks before a planned summit between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The US move only allows an important arms control agreement to exist between the two nuclear-armed powers, the New START treaty. Biden has agreed to extend this agreement for another five years.
“The United States regrets that the Open Skies contract has been undermined by Russian violations,” a State Department spokesman told NBC News. “Thus, with the conclusion of the treaty review, the United States does not intend to attempt re-entry as Russia has not taken any action to return to compliance.”
The spokesman also said that recent actions by Russia, including in Ukraine, did not suggest that it was a partner “committed to confidence building”. Russia recently deployed large numbers of troops, tanks and planes near Ukraine’s borders before scaling back what it called an “exercise”.
Deputy Foreign Minister Wendy Sherman briefed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday of the decision, the spokesman said.
The treaty was signed by the United States in 1992 and entered into force in 2002. It allows unarmed observation aircraft to fly over the territories of the countries to observe armed forces. The agreement was intended to promote transparency and alleviate possible tensions between Russia and the West.
The 34 contracting states had carried out 1,500 observation flights by October 2019.
Former President Donald Trump announced the US would leave the treaty last year, but officials in Washington and Moscow had considered the possibility that two sides could re-join. The lower house of the Russian parliament voted last week to withdraw from the agreement.
Russia has denied US allegations of breach of the treaty and blown Trump’s decision to leave the pact.
Some US arms control experts criticized the US decision, saying the treaty was a helpful tool in preventing an accidental conflict or crisis.
“It is both regrettable and dangerous that the United States has decided to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, and Russia’s decision to do the same only makes the situation worse,” said Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and senior advisor to Global Zero, an international organization dedicated to the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
“Open Skies was designed to make it difficult for states to secretly gather forces and invade or intervene across another state’s border,” he said. “In today’s environment, where a small violent struggle can escalate quickly, Open Skies is needed more than ever.”
Although observation flights are not as effective as sophisticated satellites at gathering information, proponents of the treaty have argued that the flights provide a way to build trust and avoid possible miscalculations.
Over the years, US officials accused Russia of restricting access to open skies flights over the strategic Kaliningrad area, over Moscow and along the border between Russia and the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The United States responded to the restrictions imposed by Russia by limiting the length of flights over Hawaii and blocking access to two US air force bases used during Russian missions over the United States.
Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy for the Arms Control Association, said the decision was “unfortunate, if not surprising”.
As a presidential candidate, Biden slammed Trump sharply for abandoning the contract. Reif said the administrators’ ability to revive the contract was “extremely limited” given the consequences of Trump’s move.
“The exemption from the treaty strengthens the role of the United States and Russia, which are resuming regular strategic stability and security dialogues and taking effective measures to reduce the risk of miscalculations and conflict,” he said.