In anticipation of the global arms control framework, the Donald Trump administration on Thursday said it would withdraw from the 34-member agreement, the Open Skies Treaty (OST), which would allow participants to fly unmanned surveillance planes to any part of their fellow member states.
Democratic lawmakers have described the action of the United States for some time as a “gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin — a move that could alienate Washington from its European allies.
What is the Open Skies Treaty?
Former US President Dwight Eisenhower proposed in 1955 as a way to ease tensions during the Cold War, a landmark 1992 agreement between NATO members and former Warsaw Pact countries following the death of the Soviet Union. It came into force in 2002 and currently has an unverified member (Kyrgyzstan) with 35 signatures.
OST aims to build trust among members through mutual openness, thereby reducing the likelihood of accidental war. Under this agreement, the member country may “google” any part of the host country, with the consent of the latter. Aerial imaging can be carried out on the host state after a country has given up to 72 hours notice and shared its exact flight path 24 hours earlier.
Information collected, such as troop movements, military maneuvers and missile deployment, should be shared with all member states. Only approved imaging equipment is allowed on surveillance aircraft, and officials from the host state can also stay on board during the planned journey.
Open Skies Treaty: US Withdrawal
Although it was a key arms control treaty, many in Washington accused Russia of not following OST protocols, claiming that Moscow had intercepted reconnaissance aircraft on its territory, while abusing its own missions to gather critical strategic data.
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According to a report in the New York Times, President Trump was also unhappy with Russian surveillance flying over his golf course in the state of New Jersey in 2017.
His administration has now chosen to deviate from the deal, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing Russia of “clearly and continuously violating the agreement” for several years.
The Importance of Open Skies Treaty
OST was signed in 1992 before the advent of advanced satellite imaging technology, which is currently the preferred mode of intelligence gathering. However, as a report in The Economist explained, the surveillance plane provides vital information that cannot be collected by satellite sensors, such as thermal imaging data.
Also, because the US only has extensive military satellite infrastructure, other NATO members have to rely on Washington to obtain classified satellite data, which is difficult to obtain compared to OST surveillance records, which must be shared with all members of the agreement.
Notably, the Economist report also mentions the utility of the OST for Washington, which has flown 201 intelligence missions on Russia and its ally Belarus since 2002. The former Trump official also praised the OST data collected during the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict.
U.S. Exit Agreement Meaning
In his press release, Pompeo said the US would consider renegotiating the decision to withdraw if Russia “demonstrates full compliance.”
This policy is reminiscent of last year when the United States stopped participating in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement – another security agreement credited with reducing the arms race in Europe by the end of the Cold War.
Even then, the US has said that it would renegotiate Russia if it wants a new deal – which has never materialized. Experts expect the same to happen in the case of OST, using Washington’s departure as an excuse to leave the Russian deal.
Russia’s departure will negatively impact Washington’s European allies, which rely on OST data to track the movements of Russian troops in the Baltic region, according to the NYT report. In a letter to top Democratic leaders Pompeii and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, “Breaking the Open Skies Agreement is an important multilateral arms control deal, another gift to Putin from the Trump Administration.”
Out From another Treaty
The OST exit is just the latest example of Washington pulling out of important contracts during the Trump presidency, such as the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Experts are now considering the fate of the US-Russia nuclear weapons control agreement, which expires in February 2021. Trump has already said his administration will not renew the deal unless China joins. Many see this as unlikely, as tensions have already increased between Washington and the B