Moscow-Washington Tensions to Further Escalate If US Quits Open Skies Treaty

MOSCOW (Sputnik) - Washington’s prospective withdrawal from the 28-years old Open Skies Treaty will likely prompt Russia to follow suit, thus escalating the already tense relations between the two world powers, experts say.

The Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992, allows signatories, including the United States and Russia, to conduct surveillance flights over each other's territories to collect data on military activities. Most NATO members and several non-NATO allies of the US, including Ukraine and Georgia, are signatories of the agreement.

Over the past year, several media reports indicated that the United States was considering withdrawing from the treaty. The Guardian said earlier in April, citing sources, that the administration of President Donald Trump had already made such a decision.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in March that the country had "a lot of concerns about the treaty as it stands now." In particular, Washington has claimed that Moscow restricts US observation flights within 10 kilometers (six miles) of the borders of the partially recognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and limits observation flights over the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Moscow’s position is that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are independent nations and not signatories to the treaty, while the limitations on flights over Kaliningrad are dictated by the location of airfields and the provisions of the treaty itself.

Other NATO Members Prefer To Keep Treaty In Force

Lajos Szaszdi Leon-Borja, a lecturer at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, said that the US is indeed considering withdrawing from the treaty.

“Yes, reports already appeared in the press back in October 2019 of the intention of the Trump Administration to leave the Open Skies Treaty, being reported early last October that President Trump signed a document with the intention to leave the treaty. Then in March of this year, the U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper accused Russia of noncompliance with the treaty, expressing concerns over the treaty. And it has been reported this April that the U.S. Department of Defense decided not to fund replacement aircraft for the aging planes used by the U.S. in its Open Skies Treaty flights,” Leon-Borja said.

The expert added that one of the reasons behind the decision to abandon the treaty was the necessity to hide from Russian monitoring flights “the preparations it [the US] may undertake for military interventions against Venezuela” and deployment of weapon systems “for future offensive operations against Russia from Alaska, in case of war.”

NATO allies — including Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, Ukraine Poland and other countries — would, however, prefer the US to stay party to the treaty "that allows them to conduct flights over Russia," the expert continued.

“It [Washington’s withdrawal] would affect the spirit of confidence-building measures adopted after the end of the I Cold War with the fall of the Soviet Union. In my opinion, there is now a II Cold War between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty would worsen the tensions between the two world powers, particularly in the area of the arms control process, already worsened by the U.S. withdrawal and violation of the 1987 INF Treaty [the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty], and its threatened abandonment of the New START Treaty [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty], which would need to be renewed in 2021,” Leon-Borja said.

Withdrawal To Trigger Russia's Response

Moscow and Washington should continue cooperation and work on mutually-acceptable solutions if both sides want to preserve the Open Skies Treaty, Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the US-based Arms Control Association, said.

“The Open Skies Treaty benefits the security of all parties to the treaty and there is no simple substitute. Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov and Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo appear to be speaking fairly regularly on a range of issues and if they are serious about preserving the Open Skies Treaty, they both need to work constructively to arrive at mutually satisfactory solutions,” Kimball said.

If the sides fail to do so and the US indeed proceeds with the move, it could trigger other withdrawals, including by Moscow, M. V. Ramana of the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues said.

“I think it is entirely possible that the United States will withdraw from the treaty, even though I hope that it does not. The reason to be concerned about the US withdrawal is that it could set off other withdrawals, including by Russia, and because it is yet another nail in the coffin of arms control and international cooperation as a way to manage the threat of war, and specifically nuclear war,” Ramana said.

Ramana added that the Trump administration’s reasons for the withdrawal are insufficient, and other NATO members are unlikely to follow suit.

Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, said that the Open Skies Treaty was more significant to the European countries than to the United States.

“Open Skies matters more to its European member states than to the US, and few of them are likely to exit the treaty even if the US does. Here one might compare Open Skies to the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. Russia's approach to a US withdrawal will probably decide the fate of the treaty,” Pollack said.

Withdrawal To Create Imbalance In Data Aссess

Trump is not fond of international treaties and Washington’s policy lacks logic, as the Open Skies Treaty is beneficial for both the United States and Russia, Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, said.

“The chances for US withdrawal are 50-50, in my view. There is no reason for US to withdraw except the Trump administration does not like international treaties (the George W. Bush administration did not like them either, but Trump is much more unilateralist in this sense). The treaty meets security interests of each party and the international community as a whole. I am afraid that Trump administration’s attitude is not grounded in serious calculation and it would be very difficult to convince it using logic. The policy is illogical to begin with,” Sokov said.

He added that mutual differences could be resolved and there were tools for it, and Moscow has “demonstrated flexibility with regard to these issues.”

“The 'violations' by Russia are, rather, adjustments in the implementation (e.g., brings the intensity of flights over Kaliningrad closer to the average for Russia) or are caused by unrelated, bigger differences (conflict over the status of Abkhazia) ...The challenge is not new – it was the same with the INF Treaty: issues could be resolved, but there was no desire to seriously address them. And it did not begin with Trump – personally, I assign at least half the blame to the [former president Barack] Obama administration,” Sokov said.

Sokov also said that the US would keep access to “data collected over Russia” via its European allies even after the potential withdrawal from the deal, but Moscow would lose its access to data about the US.

“Whether the Russian government will accept that imbalance, is hard to tell. So far, the bulk of Russian flights has been over Europe and it can continue these flights even in the case of US withdrawal. But still, the loss of data and apparent inequality in rights is a serious problem,” he said.

According to Sokov, Russia will not withdraw straight away and will try to “resurrect” the deal if the US abandons it.

“At the very least, it will wait until the US election in November, perhaps longer (if [Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe] Biden wins). The problem is that even if Biden decided to return to Open Skies, the treaty will have to once again be sent for ratification, which takes a long time and, given the lineup in the Senate, this time ratification is not very likely,” he said.

The expert concluded that Washington’s withdrawal could make the situation “very difficult to correct,” and the future of the Open Skies Treaty was unclear.

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