President Donald Trump, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk to participate in a group photo at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019. (Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)
WASHINGTON – The Trump administration intends to withdraw from a 18-year-old arms-control treaty that allows the U.S. and Russia, among other countries, to conduct reconnaissance flights over each others’ territory and collect data on military activities.
The withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty was expected to be confirmed on Friday, according to the New York Times, which first reported the development.
The move marks the third time President Donald Trump has abandoned international arms-control agreements following the U.S.’s exit from the Iran nuclear accord and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, which worked toward eliminating the U.S. and Russia’s stocks of nuclear-capable intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles.
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Thirty-five countries are signatories to the treaty. Trump has repeatedly accused Russia of violating the pact’s terms. It is designed to try to limit the possibility military miscalculations could lead to war. The formal pullout may not take place for six months.
Democrat critics in the Senate and House previously condemned such a move as “yet another gift from the Trump Administration to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin” that would undermine U.S. efforts to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression.
The decision could further fuel questions about Trump’s commitment to helping Ukraine fight off Russia’s attacks. Russia annexed part of Ukraine in 2014, and Ukraine faces ongoing battles with Russian separatists in its eastern region, though the two sides have been holding on-and-off again peace talks.
The treaty – formalized in 2002 after negotiations were started by President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union – permits each country to conduct “short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights” to monitor military forces and other activities, according to the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan group that supports effective arms control policies.
In a letter sent last year warning against withdrawal from the pact, top Democrats in Congress said the treaty has been “an essential tool for United States efforts to constrain Russian aggression in Ukraine.” The letter was signed by the top Democrats on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees – Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., as well as the chairmen of respective House committees, Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Adam Smith, D-Wash.
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The lawmakers noted when the Ukraine-Russian conflict began, the U.S. used images collected by U.S. surveillance missions, conducted under the Open Skies Treaty, to prove that Russian forces had invaded Ukrainian territory.
“Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty would be perceived as casting further doubt on the status of the United States commitment to Ukraine’s security and would advance the Russian narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner in the region,” the lawmakers wrote.
If the exit from the Open Skies treaty goes ahead, the U.S. will only be involved in one major arms-control treaty with Russia. New START, a nuclear-arms reduction treaty, is due to expire in 2021. Trump has not committed to staying in the pact.
US announces pullout from treaty with Russia that’s been a centerpiece of nuclear arms control since the Cold War. (Feb. 1)
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