United States formally withdraws from Open Skies treaty

The agreement allows the 34 party nations to conduct aerial reconnaissance over each others’ territory.

The US notified the member countries of the Treaty on Open Skies that it had decided to withdraw in May, an effort went into effect on Sunday [North American Aerospace Defense Command/AP Photo]

The United States has formally withdrawn from the Treaty on Open Skies, an agreement that sought to foster trust by allowing the 34 participating nations to observe one another’s militaries through unarmed flyovers.

On Sunday, a US Department of State spokesman said that six months had passed since the US in May had notified countries party to the agreement that it was withdrawing.

As of Sunday, “The United States is no longer a State Party to the Treaty on Open Skies,” the statement said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on Twitter, said “America is more secure” because of the withdrawal, while adding “Russia remains in non-compliance with its obligations”.

Russia has been accused of repeatedly violating the treating by blocking surveillance flights around certain areas, including the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the border with Georgia, as well as denying flights over Russian military exercises.

The arms control agreement, negotiated in 1992, allowed the participating nations, including the US and Russia, to conduct unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory. Every country has an annual quota for how many flights it must accept, and how many it can conduct.

While critics say the withdrawal is a major blow to US allies, it does not necessarily scuttle the agreement, with Moscow having shown itself to be more interested in aerial surveillance of European states than surveillance of the US.

Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded written assurances from the remaining NATO members that any data they gather from now on will not be shared with the US. He also said US bases in Europe would not be exempt from Russian surveillance missions.

‘One more blow’ to arms control

Writing on Twitter, Steven Pifer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, called the withdrawal “one more blow” by the administration of US President Donald Trump to arms control efforts, and called on President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the treaty.

In an article, Pifer noted that, despite US reconnaissance satellites being superior to the aircraft permitted in the Open Skies agreement, the treaty has “several advantages”.

Those include giving “US allies and partners, who lack sophisticated imagery satellites, the opportunity to gather confidence-building data,” said Pifer, who also noted that aircraft have “greater flexibility” than satellites and flights can be used as political statements.

In May, Biden derided Trump’s decision to withdraw from the treaty, saying that, despite Russia’s violations, the US and its allies “benefit” from the agreement.

“Our allies have made clear they want us to remain in the Treaty, and to work together to address compliance issues with Russia,” he wrote in a statement in May. “Without us, the Treaty could crumble. Withdrawal will exacerbate growing tensions between the West and Russia, and increase the risks of miscalculation and conflict.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies