News analysis

Nuke control pact at risk after US withdrawal from Open Skies treaty

The Open Skies agreement is the third security arrangement that President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from, after the Iran nuclear deal and the Russia-US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The Trump administration has also pulled out of other multilateral arrangements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord. In recent days, the administration has, in addition, threatened to withdraw funding from the World Health Organisation, accusing it of kowtowing to China.

"US notice of withdrawal from Open Skies suggests the continued fraying of arms control regimes, especially after the scrapping of the 1987 INF," says Dr Inderjeet Parmar, professor of international politics at the City, University of London.

"It also suggests the US may now turn its attention to ending the 2010 New Start treaty with Russia (which limits the number of deployable nuclear missiles to 1,550 for each country). New Start is the last remaining treaty constraining the US and Russian nuclear arsenals," he said.

"This is partly ideological opposition to hindrances to US unilateral action; and partly electorally motivated opposition to the international (order) as... 'ripping us off', et cetera.

"Great power rivalry is ramping up. The US' 2018 National Security Strategy declared this the era of such rivalries and the US is helping make it happen; old rules and agreements are no longer seen as serving the US, which sees itself as powerful enough to serve its own interests in whatever manner it sees fit."

Signed in 1992 and in force since 2002, the Open Skies agreement allows its 34 signatories, including Russia and the US, to conduct surveillance flights over one another to collect information on military activities and build trust that no one is planning a major offensive against another.

But American officials have long complained that Russia has failed to comply with the deal, forbidding overflights of key strategic regions and military exercises, while collecting sensitive information on critical American infrastructure. America's decision to serve six months' notice of its withdrawal came after an extensive inter-agency process and consultation with allies, US officials say.

"Russia's violation of the Open Skies Treaty is just one instance in a pattern of Russian violations of its arms control non-proliferation and disarmament obligations and commitments that affect European security and affect the arms control architecture," Dr Christopher Ford, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Non-proliferation, told journalists on Thursday.

"The United States might be willing to revisit this if Russia returns to full compliance."

There is some dismay among critics of the Trump administration's often undiplomatic "America First" doctrine.

But the decision rests squarely on the Kremlin's wilful, brazen violations of the treaty - and nowhere else, contended Dr Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"Russia is deliberately undermining important, fundamental tenets of the treaty, including openness, transparency and cooperation," Dr Brookes told The Sunday Times.

"As a general principle, there must be consequences for non-compliance with a treaty. Moscow's violations... only add to deep-seated concerns about Russian belligerent, bad behaviour in Europe - and beyond."

Ultimately, the fate of the Open Skies agreement may be less significant globally than that of the New Start treaty, the sole remaining nuclear-arms-control accord between the US and Russia, which is set to expire shortly after the 2021 inauguration of the US' next president.

Mr Trump's new arms control negotiator Marshall Billingslea is planning to meet his Russian counterpart soon to discuss a new American proposal for a far-reaching accord to limit all Russian, Chinese and American nuclear warheads.

The problem? China has said it is not interested.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 24, 2020, with the headline Nuke control pact at risk after US withdrawal from Open Skies treaty. Subscribe