By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced its intention on Thursday to withdraw from the 35-nation Open Skies treaty allowing unarmed surveillance flights over member countries, the Trump administration’s latest move to pull the United States from a major global treaty.
The administration said Russia has repeatedly violated the pact’s terms. Senior officials said the pullout will formally take place in six months, based on the treaty’s withdrawal terms.
NATO allies – and other countries like Ukraine – have been pressing Washington not to withdraw from the treaty, and Trump’s decision could aggravate tensions within the alliance.
The administration also pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia last year.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to a small group of reporters, said the decision followed a six-month review that found multiple instances of Russian refusal to comply with the treaty.
“During the course of this review it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in America’s interests to remain a party to the Open Skies treaty,” said one of the officials, saying Russia violates and implements the treaty in ways that can contribute to military threats against the United States and allies.
One administration official said extensive discussions were held with U.S. allies leading up to the decision but ultimately Washington decided “it is no longer in our interest” to participate in it.
At the same time, the official said U.S. officials had begun talks in recent days with Russian officials about a new round of nuclear arms negotiations to “begin crafting the next generation of nuclear arms control measures.”
“The United States is committed to arms control. We are committed to European security. And we are committed to a future that puts meaningful constraints on nuclear weapons,” the official said.
“It will be incumbent on Russia to be comply with future arrangements. We go into this with eyes wide open,” the official said.
The Open Skies treaty, initially proposed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, was signed in 1992 and took effect in 2002. The idea is to let member nations make surveillance flights over each other’s countries to build trust.
The officials cited a years-long effort by Russia to violate the terms, such as by restricting U.S. overflights of Russia neighbor Georgia and its military enclave in Kaliningrad.
In addition, they said Russia has been using its own overflights of American and European territory to identify critical U.S. infrastructure for potential attack in a time of war.
The 35 state parties to the Open Skies treaty are: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark (including Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Trump’s decision to abandon the Open Skies Treaty could indicate that he will allow the New START treaty to lapse. He has until February to extend it for up to five years.It is the last remaining restraint on deployments of US and Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems to no more than 1,550 each. This could trigger a new arms race that China would likely join.
(Reporting By Steve Holland; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; editing by David Gregorio)