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    US Freeze on Open Skies Co-op With Russia Jeopardizes START Treaty - Scholars

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    MOSCOW (Sputnik) - The suspension of cooperation with Russia under the Treaty on Open Skies by the US threatens to undermine the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), based on mutual inspections, and may be used by Washington as an excuse for unsubstantiated allegations of Russia’s non-compliance with this agreement, experts told Sputnik.

    On Monday, US President Donald Trump signed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law. According to the bill, the United States will not obligate any funds to implement the Treaty on Open Skies until penalties are imposed against Russia for alleged previous violations. The NDAA also earmarks $716 billion for US defense spending, which is 3 percent more than under the 2018 budget, making it one of the biggest in the country’s history.

    Blow to New Start and Other Core Treaties

    According to Konstantin Sivkov, the deputy president of the Russian Academy of Missile and Artillery Sciences, the US decision to suspend mutual flights over strategic military objects may have ramifications for the inspection mechanism stipulated in the New START treaty, meant to prove the signatories’ compliance with the agreement.

    "The essence of the Treaty on Open Skies is that the planes of Russia and the United States with certain intervals carry out surveillance flights to inspect various military sites. First of all, the sites in question are strategic nuclear forces, [whose observation] is meant to ensure the [sides’] compliance with the New START treaty. If now they [the United States] freezes these activities, this means, on one side, the suspension of US flights over the Russian sites, and, on the other, the suspension of our flights over those of the United States," Sivkov told Sputnik.

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    As a result, the future of the New START treaty is very much an open question, as the United States may start falsely accusing Moscow of the treaty’s violations, citing the lack of a verification mechanism to control its nuclear arsenal, the expert suggested.

    "Hence, a big question mark hangs over [Washington’s] compliance with the New START treaty. Under these circumstances, Washington gets an opportunity to put forward unfounded accusations that Russia allegedly violates the treaty. Russia, in turn, will mobilize additional resources to offset the US boost of its nuclear and missile arsenal. The level of the nuclear and missile parity will be constantly rising," Sivkov argued.

    Vladimir Batyuk, the head of the Center for Military and Political Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences, shares the view, saying that the US freeze on cooperation under the treaty was a very dangerous "trend toward dismantling arms control and control of mutual military activities." He stressed that the negative trend was also accompanied by the increase in the US defense spending and the subsequent escalation of the arms race.

    In a comment to Sputnik, Batyuk suggested that it was premature to suggest that the move would trigger the US withdrawal from other core treaties, noting that it is a 50/50 chance that the United States may walk out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty).

    Excessively Costly Flights?

    Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky, the former head of the International Treaties Department at the Russian Defense Ministry, noted that the US move was also connected with the US Congress’ reluctance to upgrade the country’s Open Skies fleet and allocate relevant funds.

    "The suspension of cooperation with Russia under the Treaty on Open Skies is connected with the fact that they [the United States] have no new planes. Their aircraft which used to carry out these tasks are now outdated. Russia, meanwhile, has two modern Open Skies aircraft. The Republicans in the Congress did not allow for the allocation of funds to create a similar fleet under the excuse that this treaty is of an espionage nature and does not meet US interests," Buzhinsky told Sputnik.

    He added that the situation was the result of a long-term policy pursued by the Republican Party since the early 2000s and aimed against the arms control measures deemed too costly.

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    The expert stressed that the Pentagon opposed such initiatives since it sees the existing treaties as vital tools for control of Russia’s arsenal. He suggested that the Pentagon would do its best to prolong the New START treaty, which expires in 2021.

    Reasons Behind One of Biggest Budgets in US History

    According to Batyuk, the increase in US defense spending is part of Trump’s "Make America Great Again" approach aimed at the revival of the country’s economic leadership, including through the creation of new jobs.

    "This spike is not accidental … The defense spending is part of his [Trump’s] strategy. The defense spending increase means new jobs in the US defense industry. The increase in the active army personnel by 16,000 will also mean new jobs. Surely, the budget is also meant to act as an economic incentive," he pointed out.

    With the defense spending boost, the United States also aims to catch up with Russia and China in terms of conventional forces, the expert stressed.

    According to Buzhinsky, the enormous size of the US budget is driven by several additional factors, including the high cost of US weapons, which, on average, are six times more expensive than Russian hardware, and the maintenance of multiple overseas military bases.

    The Treaty on Open Skies was signed in 1992 and became one of the measures to build confidence in post-Cold War Europe. It has been operating since 2002 and allows participating countries to openly collect information on each other's military forces and activities.

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    The treaty covers most NATO member states as well as Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sweden and Finland. As a rule, flights of Russia and NATO member states are conducted on a reciprocal basis.

    In June 2017, the United States accused Moscow of violating the terms of the treaty due to the latter's restrictions on overflights of Kaliningrad, the country's enclave on the Baltic Sea. The United States pledged to implement restrictions on Russian observation flights over the United States on January 1, 2018.

    Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the researchers and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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    Tags:
    Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Treaty on Open Skies, NATO, United States, Russia
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