23:02 GMT11 April 2021
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    On 21 May US President Donald Trump confirmed reports that his administration would withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarified that the US would leave the pact within six months from Friday, but could reconsider the withdrawal if "Russia returns to full compliance" with the accord.

    The United States stands to lose the most from exiting the Open Skies Treaty, while for Russia, almost nothing will change in the event Washington goes ahead with the move, believes Die Welt.

    The Open Skies Treaty, which allows reconnaissance flights over some 34 participating countries, is a unique opportunity for cooperation between the US and Russian militaries, serving the interests of transparency and mutual trust.

    A threat to the existence of the pact would be a catastrophe for security in Europe, the newspaper writes, underscoring that the Americans themselves would lose access to military facilities and infrastructure.

    The publication referred to US President Donald Trump’s announcement on 21 May that Washington would withdraw from the 2002 treaty in six months unless Russia returns to “full compliance”.

    Russia has been insistently rejecting accusations that it violated the terms of the pact.

    A Boeing OC-135B Open Skies aircraft
    © Wikipedia
    A Boeing OC-135B Open Skies aircraft

    The publication writes that tit-for-tat limits on surveillance under the Open Skies Treaty had earlier arisen between Moscow and Washington, with the US introducing restrictions on Russian missions over Alaska, where interceptors that form part of the US missile shield are positioned, and Hawaii, the base of the US Pacific Fleet.

    Russia in 2010 banned observation flights within a 10-kilometer zone along the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions from Georgia recognized by Moscow but not Washington as independent countries, and in 2014 – over Kaliningrad.

    In addition, US officials objected to Russia’s Tu-214ON reconnaissance aircraft, more specifically, the new digital camera system installed on them.

    On 12 September 2018, the Russian government announced that the United States alone had refused to approve the two Tu-214ONs for Open Skies flights.

    According to Die Welt, Donald Trump’s decision had been taken under pressure of critics who deem it possible to conduct necessary surveillance with the help of satellites, while deploring lack of digital cameras on the modified Boeing WC-135B, used for OST missions by the Pentagon.

    Die Welt cites two significant disadvantages for the United States in withdrawing from the agreement: the military will lose the ability to fly over Russian territory and will not be able to publish and discuss via diplomatic channels the received satellite data from such missions.

    Meanwhile, US allies in NATO, without advanced satellites at their disposal, will be able, as before, to receive images of Russian military infrastructure during flights. Moreover, these flights can be used as “political gestures”, the outlet writes.

    According to Die Welt, Washington’s exit from the pact will hardly affect Moscow in any way, since Russia makes 90 per cent of its flights under the agreement in European airspace. In the case of a reciprocal response from Moscow, the newspaper writes, the Open Skies Treaty will become history.

    Treaty on Open Skies

    President Donald Trump declared on 21 May that Washington was going to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying in a written statement that the decision will come into effect six months from 22 May.

    Trump says the move was motivated by Russia’s alleged violation of the pact – something Moscow has categorically denied.

    Russia will be guided by its own interests while thoroughly analyzing the situation around the Treaty on Open Skies, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated.

    "We will not go into hysterics. We will thoroughly analyze this situation and will be guided, first of all, by our nationals' interests and the interests of our allies, including Belarus, which forms a single group of countries with us under this treaty," he said.

    Lavrov added that signatory nations are to convene an extraordinary conference over the announcement, to be called not earlier than a month but not later than two months after Washington declared its intention.

    On Saturday Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov dismissed the allegation by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Moscow used the Open Skies Treaty to target critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe as “ludicrous”.

    "When the administration of [US President Donald] Trump... suddenly suggests that Russia has been using Open Skies aircraft to guide artillery and rocket fire this causes great amusement in Moscow offices and headquarters," Ryabkov said on Russia's TV Channel One.

    Urge to ‘Rethink’

    Western allies are still hoping to convince Washington to reverse its decision.

    In the wake of the news, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated that he “very much” regrets the US government’s announcement.

    “By withdrawing, the United States would significantly reduce the scope of the Open Skies Treaty and weaken the whole regime”, Maas emphasized, pledging Berlin “will work intensively with our like-minded partners to make the US government rethink their decision”.

    EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell similarly voiced regret over the US decision, calling the Open Skies treaty "a key element of our arms-control architecture" which serves as "a vital confidence and security-building measure."

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Congressman Alcee Hastings issued a statement, urging the US administration to reconsider the “ill-advised decision”:

    "I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty".

    Aerial Surveillance Pact

    Signed in March 1992 by 23 member nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Helsinki, the Treaty on Open Skies presupposed a regime that would boost transparency, render assistance in monitoring compliance with the existing or future arms control agreements, enhance possibilities for preventing and managing crisis situations.

    Russian Tu-214ON (Open Skies) created for the observation flights under the Open Skies Treaty
    © Sputnik / Maxim Bogodvid
    Russian Tu-214ON (Open Skies) created for the observation flights under the Open Skies Treaty

    On 26 May 2001 Russia ratified the pact, which establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of its participants, of which there are now over 30 signatory states.

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    Tags:
    Josep Borrell, Heiko Maas, Sergey Ryabkov, Sergei Lavrov, Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump, Open Skies Agreement, Treaty on Open Skies, Open Skies Treaty
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