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NATO allies alarmed by US Open Skies exit

Teri Schultz Brussels
May 22, 2020

The Trump administration has quit yet another arms control deal, one meant to build trust between the US and Russia. As Teri Schultz reports from Brussels, observers in Europe and the US are unnerved by a worrying trend.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in shadow
Image: picture-alliance/AP/S. Walsh

NATO allies had long been warned by the Trump administration that it didn't see the value in staying in the Open Skies Treaty that allows the 34 signatories to fly over each other's territory in an effort to boost transparency and trust. But unlike the unity that was eventually achieved by the time Washington withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last year, Europeans have not empathetically accepted the decision to dump Open Skies, which they consider an effective contribution to global security.

After a special NATO session on Friday to discuss next steps, the statement read out by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was little more than a compilation of long-held views reconfirming NATO's commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation and a relatively mild rebuke that Russia's "selective implementation" of its obligations "has undermined" the treaty.

NATO noted US plans to "reconsider its withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance," and pledged further efforts toward convincing the Kremlin to do so, which it suggested should happen at "the earliest date possible."

Read more: Munich Security Report sees world as a broken puzzle

The post-Cold War treaty, sealed in 1992 with the aim of increasing trans-Atlantic trust and transparency, permits signatories to conduct a certain number of military surveillance flights over each others' territory at little notice.

The United States, and to a less vocal degree, its European partners, have long taken issue with the Kremlin's refusal to grant access to observation flights around the enclave of Kaliningrad and within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of its border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Washington has argued that Russia has also blocked unarmed overflights of US military exercises, and has accused Moscow of abusing its surveillance rights over US territory to conduct espionage.

Trump predicts 'positive' outcome

US President Donald Trump doesn't seem to think ditching the agreement is a big deal. "I think that the Open Sky [sic] will all work out," he said Thursday, previewing the formal notification of withdrawal. "I think what's going to happen is we're going to pull out and they're going to want to make a deal...I think something very positive will work out."

Other governments appear to be less certain of that outcome.

At Friday's NATO meeting, French Ambassador Muriel Domenach read out a statement signed by 11 governments, including Germany, France, Finland and Sweden. "We regret the announcement by the US government," said Domenach, "although we share their concerns about implementation of the treaty clauses by Russia."

But in a clear rebuttal to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's conclusion that such concerns amount to Moscow using Open Skies to "undermine international peace and security," the Foreign Ministries insisted the accord "remains functioning and useful" and has "clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security."

Open Skies one of a kind

Retired Colonel Wolfgang Richter, now with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, spent many years working on arms control and verification regimes and sees Open Skies as essential for transparency. He emphasized the unique significance of the raw data gathered by Open Skies surveillance, which is shared with all 34 member countries, some of which don't even have their own systems to gather such information.

Richter believes weakening the agreement carries a bigger price than bearing the Russian violations, which he doesn't consider material breaches, in the short term. "There are implementation problems with the Russians, that is true, but they are not so severe that you cannot pursue the purpose of the treaty," Richter told DW.

Read more: NATO looks to outer space as modern warfare evolves

He said the Kremlin will likely react by also deciding to quit Open Skies, lamenting that "we lose one instrument of cooperative security after the other."

Lukasz Kulesa, a senior researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, doesn't necessarily agree that Moscow will follow Washington out. "If the Russians are shrewd, they will stay in the treaty," he told DW, "and get closer to those of the European countries that would be critical of the Trump approach."

Kulesa suggested the Trump administration may have miscalculated the implications of its move, coming just after quitting both the INF and the Iran nuclear deal. "It's very much playing, I'm afraid, into the hands of the Russians," he told DW. "It's very easy for the Russians and also for others to construct a narrative in which the Russian violations of the treaty kind of go to the sideline and we all talk about this crazy Trump administration that is destroying the arms control."

Read more: Landmark INF nuclear arms treaty is history: What now?

Lufthansa Airbus A319 in a hangar
Germany's Lufthansa remodeled its Airbus A319 to be used in Open Skies surveillanceImage: Lufthansa Technik/Jan Brandes

New START end?

Bu that's indeed what the White House is doing, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. He called the withdrawal "part of a troubling pattern" which bodes ill for the last remaining agreement limiting US and Russian nuclear arsenals. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, needs to be extended by February to remain in force and the Trump administration has gone from ambivalence to announcing that it wants China, and possibly even the European nuclear powers Britain and France, to be included in a new arms control configuration.

Kimball finds it all exasperating as well as worrying. "The questions about the Open Skies treaty contribute to this deteriorating security environment," he explained. "What is disturbing is that the diplomatic process for solving these issues and finding replacement treaties or agreements is completely absent." At this rate, he said there's little chance any new agreement can be reached by New START's expiration date in February.

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