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Trump to Withdraw U.S. From ‘Open Skies’ Treaty

2020-05-21 20:08:37
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President Trump has decided to withdraw from another major arms control accord, according to senior administration officials, and will inform Russia on Friday that the United States is pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, negotiated three decades ago to allow nations to fly over each other’s territory with elaborate sensor equipment to assure that they are not preparing for military action.

Mr. Trump’s decision may be viewed as more evidence that he is preparing to exit the one major arms treaty remaining with Russia: New START, which limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear missiles each. It expires in February, weeks after the next presidential inauguration, and Mr. Trump has insisted that China must join what is now a U.S.-Russia limit on nuclear arsenals.

Even as the administration announced Mr. Trump’s intention to withdraw from the Open Skies agreement, the president held out the possibility of negotiations with the Russians that could save American participation in the accord.

“There’s a chance we may make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together,” he said outside the White House. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal.”

At the same time, his newly appointed arms negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, said the administration plans detailed conversations with the Russians over the future of New START. But the Chinese do not appear to be participating in that first meeting, even though Mr. Billingslea insisted he was “confident” they would ultimately join.

So far, though, the Chinese have indicated no interest in limitations on their own nuclear arsenal, and some critics of the administration’s approach say the insistence on Beijing’s participation is a poison pill to scuttle the entire treaty.

American officials have long complained that Moscow was violating the Open Skies accord by not permitting flights over a city where it was believed Russia was deploying nuclear weapons that could reach Europe, as well as forbidding flights over major Russian military exercises. (Satellites, the main source for gathering intelligence, are not affected by the treaty.)

“You reach a point at which you need to say enough is enough,” Mr. Billingslea said. “The United States cannot keep participating in this treaty if Russia is going to violate it with impunity.”

American officials also note that Mr. Trump was angered by a Russian flight directly over his Bedminster, N.J., golf estate in 2017. And in classified reports, the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies have contended that the Russians are also using flights over the United States to map out critical American infrastructure that could be hit by conventional weapons or cyberattacks.

But much of that data is now publicly available, and mapping the network vulnerabilities is best done online, not from aircraft or outer space.

Mr. Trump’s decision, rumored for some time, is bound to further aggravate European allies, including those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who are also signatories to the treaty.

They are likely to remain in the accord, which has about three dozen signatories, but have warned that with Washington’s exit, Russia will almost certainly respond by also cutting off their flights, which the allies use to monitor troop movements on their borders — especially important to the Baltic nations.

It now has less relevance than it did then or even when it finally went into effect, in 2002, a decade after it was signed. Modern commercial satellite photography is widely and cheaply available, though it cannot replace all the information available on an airplane’s sensors.

“The concept of Open Skies, starting with President Eisenhower, was to give insight and build confidence related to military intentions, among other things,” Mr. Billingslea, a veteran of the George W. Bush Pentagon and considered a hard-liner on Russia, said in an interview. “But it no longer is serving that purpose because of so many Russian violations.”

He cited Russian moves to make it impossible for the United States to send flights over Kaliningrad, Georgia and Russia’s own large military exercises.

Nonetheless, European nations regard the regular flights — conducted by the United States, Britain and smaller powers — as an important continuing engagement with Russia, even if Moscow has increasingly blocked flight plans that seem permissible under the treaty.

Russia has said that the engagement in the treaty is valuable. Mr. Billingslea and his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, disagree.

Eliot L. Engel, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Mr. Trump’s move illegal, noting that the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requires that the president give Congress 120 days’ notice before beginning the withdrawal process. Mr. Trump signed that act.

“There is something particularly dangerous about a president, a secretary of state, and a secretary of defense knowingly breaking the law in ways that jeopardize our safety and national security,” Mr. Engel said in a statement. “With this decision, that is exactly what they’ve chosen to do.”

Under the terms of the treaty, Mr. Trump’s formal notice to Russia and the other signatories starts a six-month clock toward final withdrawal. It requires a meeting of all the signatories within 60 days. While American officials have held out the possibility of agreements that could halt withdrawal, that seems unlikely to occur. The same six-month delay in withdrawal last year from the I.N.F. treaty did not result in any meaningful discussion.

To the extent that foreign policy becomes an issue in the presidential campaign, the withdrawal from this treaty, along with the last two that Mr. Trump has exited, could become a debating point. On Monday, Antony J. Blinken, the top foreign policy adviser to Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, said that “I would be very much in favor of staying engaged in Open Skies.”

Conservatives have been pressing Mr. Trump to withdraw for some time, despite his own periodic musings about his friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin and his desire for a good relationship with Russia. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a longtime proponent of withdrawal, said in a statement, “It was long past time for the United States to withdraw from this treaty and stop allowing Russia to use our skies to spy on the American people.”

But that was the entire premise of the Eisenhower plan: That the “spying” would, in fact, build confidence that neither side was preparing for military action. The treaty was imagined as a way to verify the movement and exercises of conventional forces, though it also played some role in tracking the movement of tactical nuclear weapons as the Russians placed more aimed at targets in Western Europe.

“The transparency it provides has helped prevent miscalculation and misunderstandings that could have otherwise led to conflict,” said John F. Tierney, a former Democratic representative from Massachusetts who now is the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “This has become a reckless pattern” for the Trump administration.

Open Skies is a comparatively small treaty; the bigger issue will be the fate of New START.

For more than a year, Mr. Trump has said he would not renew the New START treaty, negotiated by Mr. Obama in 2010, unless China also joined. Beijing, which has a nuclear arsenal that is one-fifth the size of Washington’s and Moscow’s, has rejected the idea. And it is unclear how that might work even if China agreed to enter the treaty. With 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons each, the United States and Russia would never be willing to reduce their arsenals to the 300 or so held by China. And allowing China to build up to American and Russian levels seems to defeat the purpose of arms control.

Mr. Pompeo has suggested that not all nuclear powers need to have the same number of nuclear weapons. But the idea that China would willingly agree to a small arsenal, especially at a moment of great tension with the United States, seems hard to imagine.

In a briefing for reporters Thursday afternoon, Mr. Billingslea said that he and his Russian counterparts had agreed to meet on the future of the New START treaty, and that the United States would insist that any negotiations include the Chinese. He said he was confident the Chinese would participate.

“The Chinese have an obligation to negotiate with us in good faith,” he said. “We also know they want to be treated as a great power, and what better way to do so” than entering into negotiations with Moscow and Washington.

“We will have to have very tough verification measures” for any new accord, he said.

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