US tells Russia it will not rejoin Open Skies treaty

Pact made in 1992 was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by allowing overflights to collect military information

A Russian Air Force Tu-214 flies over the Offutt US Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska on April 26, 2019 on an observation flight permitted under the Open Skies Treaty. Omaha World-Herald via AP
A Russian Air Force Tu-214 flies over the Offutt US Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska on April 26, 2019 on an observation flight permitted under the Open Skies Treaty. Omaha World-Herald via AP

The United States informed Russia on Thursday that it will not rejoin a key arms control pact, the State Department said, even as the two countries prepare for a meeting between their leaders next month.

US officials said Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Russians that the administration had decided not to re-enter the Treaty on Open Skies, which had allowed unarmed surveillance flights over military facilities in both countries before president Donald Trump withdrew from the pact last year.

“The United States regrets that the Treaty on Open Skies has been undermined by Russia’s violations,” the State Department said. “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 behaviour, including its recent actions with respect to Ukraine, is not that of a partner committed to confidence-building.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the US decision did not create an atmosphere conducive for arms-control discussions to be held at a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden next month, the RIA news agency reported.

Mr Biden and Mr Putin are scheduled to meet on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, where they will try to find common ground amid a sharp deterioration in ties that have sunk relations to their lowest point in decades.

Thursday's decision means only one major arms control treaty remains between the nuclear powers – the New START treaty. The arms reduction pact would have expired earlier this year, but the Biden administration moved quickly to extend it for five years while opening a review of the Open Skies treaty.

As a presidential candidate, Mr Biden criticised Mr Trump's withdrawal from the 1992 treaty as “short-sighted”.

The treaty was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by allowing the accord’s more than three dozen signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories to collect information about military forces and activities. More than 1,500 flights have been conducted under the treaty since it took effect in 2002, aimed at fostering transparency and allowing for the monitoring of arms control and other agreements.

Thursday’s notification, however, appears to mark the end of the treaty, which was broadly supported by US allies in Europe and Democrats in Congress as a trust-building measure between the former Cold War adversaries.

The lower house of Russia’s parliament voted last week to withdraw from the treaty and the upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to approve the withdrawal bill on June 2. It will take six months for the Russian exit to take effect once Mr Putin signs the measure.

In pulling out of the pact, Mr Trump argued that Russian breaches made it untenable for Washington to remain a party to the agreement. Washington completed its withdrawal from the treaty in November, but the Biden administration had said it was not opposed to rejoining it.

The officials stressed the Biden administration’s willingness to co-operate with Russia on issues of mutual concern and noted the extension of New START, which was signed in 2010 by president Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president at the time. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

But officials said that despite appeals for Russia to abide by the Open Skies treaty, there was no practical way for the US to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw. One official said that since Mr Biden had taken office, Russia had demonstrated a “complete absence of progress” in taking steps to return to compliance.

The officials said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior American officials had told their Russian counterparts in the past week that a decision on Open Skies was imminent.

Mr Blinken met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Iceland last week, and Mr Sullivan spoke to Mr Putin's national security adviser, Nikolay Patrushev, on Monday.

Moscow had said the US pull-out would erode global security by making it more difficult for governments to interpret the intentions of other nations, particularly during heightened Russia-West tensions over myriad issues, including Ukraine, cyber malfeasance and the treatment of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his supporters.

Leading congressional Democrats and members of the European Union urged the US to reconsider its exit and called on Russia to stay in the pact and lift flight restrictions, notably over its westernmost Kaliningrad region, which lies between Nato allies Lithuania and Poland.

Russia insisted the restrictions on observation flights it imposed in the past were permissible under the treaty and noted that the US imposed more sweeping restrictions on observation flights over Alaska.

As a condition for staying in the pact after the US pull-out, Moscow unsuccessfully pushed for guarantees from Nato allies that they would not give the US the data collected during their observation flights over Russia.

Updated: May 28, 2021 08:35 PM

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