U.S. to Withdraw from Treaty on Open Skies, Accuses Russia of Violations

The United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies and accused Russia of repeatedly violating the treaty.

In a statement released on May 21, the U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that the U.S will submit a notice of its decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies to the Treaty Depositaries and to all other States Parties to the Treaty on May 22. He added that the U.S. will no longer be a party to the Treaty effective six months from tomorrow.

The statement said that it is no longer in America’s interest to remain a party to the Treaty on Open Skies. It accused Russia of violating the treaty and using it to advance its own geopolitical ambitions.

The Russian violations as per the statement are:

+ Russia has refused access to observation flights within a 10-kilometer corridor along its border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thereby attempting to advance false Russian claims that these occupied territories are independent states.

+ Russia’s designation of an Open Skies refueling airfield in Crimea, Ukraine, is similarly an attempt to advance its claim of purported annexation of the peninsula, which the United States does not and will never accept.

+ Russia has also illegally placed a restriction on flight distance over Kaliningrad, despite the fact that this enclave has become the location of a significant military build-up that Russian officials have suggested includes short-range nuclear-tipped missiles targeting NATO.

+ In 2019, Russia unjustifiably denied a shared United States and Canada observation flight over a large Russian military exercise.

The Treaty on Open Skies is the third arms control treaty the U.S. has withdrawn since Donald Trump took over as the U.S. President. Two years ago, the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal or Iran deal. Last year, the U.S. left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after accusing Russia for violating the treaty.

The U.S. is also reportedly preparing to exit the one other major arms treaty remaining with Russia, the New START. This treaty, which expires in February, limits both countries to 1,550 deployed nuclear missiles each.

Treaty on Open Skies

The Treaty on Open Skies, which entered into force on January 1, 2002, establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of its 34 participants.

Aerial reconnaissance flights on the basis of the Open Skies Treaty are conducted in order to verify that the arms control agreements in force are respected by the overflown country. The flights can be carried out over the whole territory of the country with the only exception is for flight safety reasons (i.e, not for reasons of national security).

Boeing OC-135B Open Skies - U.S. Air Force (USAF)
A Boeing OC-135B Open Skies aircraft of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) which is used by the U.S. for Treaty on Open Skies observation flights.

The treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them.

The 34 state parties to the Open Skies Treaty are: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark (including Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France, the Republic of Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Kyrgyzstan has signed the treaty but has not yet ratified it.

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