US pulls out from Open Skies treaty, re-engineering Cold War era security agreements

WASHINGTON - The Open Skies agreement is the third security arrangement from which President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States, after the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Russia-US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The Trump administration has also pulled out from other multilateral arrangements including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate accord. In recent days, the Administration has in addition threatened to withdraw funding from the World Health Organisation (WHO), 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 (it 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."

"This is partly ideological opposition to hindrances to US unilateral action; and partly electorally-motivated opposition to the international (order) as… 'ripping us off', etc," Dr Parmar said.

"Great power rivalry is ramping up. The US's 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 each other 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. The decision to serve six months' notice of its withdrawal came after an extensive inter-agency process and consultation as well 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 nonproliferation and disarmament obligations and commitments that affect European security and affect the arms control architecture," Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Dr Christopher A Ford told journalists on Thursday.

 
 
 

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

There is some dismay among critics of the Donald 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 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 Straits Times.

"As a general principle, there must be consequences for noncompliance 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, set to expire shortly after the 2021 inauguration of America's next President.

Marshall Billingslea, President Trump's new arms control negotiator, is planning to meet with 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.