December 4, 2020

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An OC-135 Open Skies aircraft takes off Sept. 14, 2018 from the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The U.S. Air Force operates two modified Boeing 707 aircraft as part of the 1992 Open Skies treaty which allows 26 countries unrestricted overflight of domestic airspace to monitor military developments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Charles J. Haymond)

US to withdraw from Open Skies transparency pact

The United States has said it will withdraw from an accord allowing participating nations to conduct surveillance flights in each other’s skies. Washington accuses Moscow of allowing such flights selectively.

2003 archive image of an American Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane in the skies over the Korean peninsula. (picture-alliance/dpa)

The US on Thursday said it would withdraw from the 35-nation Open Skies treaty, complaining that Russia has repeatedly violated the terms of the pact.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials said the decision had been reached after a review found that Russia had refused to properly comply with the treaty on multiple occasions.

“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,” one official was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying.

Officials said that Russia refusing to allow such flights over sensitive areas was the main motivation for the US leaving the treaty. They cited alleged restriction of flights over Moscow and Chechnya as well as two Russian-occupied regions of Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

Limitations have also made it increasingly difficult to carry out observations of Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania that is home to Moscow’s Baltic fleet.

According to the US, Russia has blocked surveillance flights over ongoing military operations

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said the US withdrawal from the treaty would affect the interest of all signatories, including Washington’s NATO allies. Grushko denied that Russia had violated the treaty and called for more talks about the technical issues that the US cited as infringements.

“The withdrawal by the US from this treaty would be not only a blow to the foundation of European security… but to the key security interests of the allies of the US,” Grushko was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.   

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said the US withdrawal from the treaty would affect the interest of all signatories, including Washington’s NATO allies. Grushko denied that Russia had violated the treaty and called for more talks about the technical issues that the US cited as infringements.

“The withdrawal by the US from this treaty would be not only a blow to the foundation of European security… but to the key security interests of the allies of the US,” Grushko was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.   

Conceived early in Cold War, implemented after it

The Open Skies idea was first proposed by former US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, but it was initially rejected by Moscow. The idea was revived by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, and it entered into force in January 2002.

Under the deal, countries are allowed to fly a certain number of flights at short notice over the territory of a signatory nation each year.

Former European military and defense chiefs signed a statement earlier this month, saying that the US withdrawal would be a blow to security. Top Democrats have also said the withdrawal would undermine alliances with European allies who rely on the aerial imagery to monitor Russian military activities. 

US reports suggest that the administration in Washington would prefer to obtain imagery at a reduced cost from US or commercial satellites. Officials are reported to have been working on a proposal that would give NATO partners access to the pictures.

Senior officials said the withdrawal would take place formally in six months, based on the terms of the original agreement

The move is the latest effort by the administration of US President Donald Trump to remove the US from a major global defense treaty. Last year, the US pulled out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

More than 1,500 flights have taken place under the treaty, aimed at creating greater transparency about military activity and helping to monitor arms control agreements.

rc/msh (AP, AFP) (DW)