The US will pull out of the Open Skies treaty, a major international defence accord that allows nations to fly over each other’s territory, the second time in the space of 12 months that the Trump administration has withdrawn from a global arms control deal.
Donald Trump said the US would exit the treaty until Russia adhered to its terms. “So I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal,” he told reporters on Thursday. “We’ve had a very good relationship lately with Russia.”
Robert O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, said Mr Trump had “made clear” that the US “will not remain a party to international agreements that are being violated by the other parties and are no longer in America’s interests”.
The treaty, which came into force in 2002 and involves 35 countries, allows Russia and most Nato members to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territories to verify troop and arms deployments. It was signed in an effort to increase trust between the western military alliance and Moscow after the end of the Cold War.
The US has long complained about what it says is Russia’s refusal to allow flights over its heavily militarised Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, as well as along Russia’s border with Georgia, and over military exercises. A notice of intention to leave the treaty starts a six-month notice period leading to withdrawal.
Russia has not received official explanations from the US regarding the withdrawal, the country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday. “Unfortunately, this is not the first blow to international stability and security being inflicted by the US administration,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told state-run television.
A Nato official said members of the 30-strong alliance would discuss the Open Skies Treaty on Friday. The official pointed to concerns expressed by Nato country leaders in 2018 over Russia’s “selective implementation” of the accord, in particular through restrictions on flights over certain areas.
Last month, top US Democrats on the House and Senate committees that oversee military and foreign affairs said they were “deeply troubled” by persistent reports the Trump administration was considering a withdrawal from Open Skies.
The lawmakers accused the White House of “ramming” through a pullout as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic.
The withdrawal news will dismay some European countries, which had lobbied the US to stay in the agreement because they found the information from flights over Russia valuable to European security.
One European official said the US move was consistent with the Trump administration policy of “withdrawal from multilateral fora without consultation of allies”.
Another European official said Washington’s decision was “not unexpected”, adding that violations of the treaty by Russia were a “serious concern”.
The US notice of withdrawal will stoke concerns that Mr Trump may not extend the New Start treaty, a bilateral deal with Moscow capping the number of nuclear warheads held by both countries, which expires early next year.
The US withdrew last year from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces arms control treaty, a Cold War-era pact with Russia that banned the deployment of land-based missiles with a range of 500km-5,500km. European countries were blindsided by Washington’s initial announcement, although Nato member states later swung behind the US decision on account of alleged Russian violations of the accord.
Washington accused Russia of deploying mid-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, which are prohibited by the pact. Moscow denied that accusation and said US missile batteries in Europe were in breach of the treaty.
That decision was widely seen as linked to rising tensions with China, Many in the US foreign policy establishment argued Washington was being constrained as Beijing expanded its nuclear missile arsenal.
Mr O’Brien said the US would “look forward to negotiating with both Russia and China on a new arms control framework that moves beyond the Cold War constructs of the past and helps keep the entire world safe”.