Login/Logout

*
*  

"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Arms Control Now Blog

Trump's decision to ditch another treaty with Russia is a reckless own goal

Body: 


Originally published in World Politics Review, June 1, 2020.

President Donald Trump's recent decision to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which has helped keep the post-Cold War peace, raises the long-term risk of armed conflict in Europe. While unfortunate, abandoning this 34-nation confidence-building measure is consistent with Trump's years-long policy of confidence-demolition.

First proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and negotiated under the George H.W. Bush administration, Open Skies allows signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation aircraft over one another's territory. This helps build a measure of transparency and trust regarding each countries' military forces and activities, thereby enhancing stability and reducing the risk of conflict.

Under the terms of the treaty, every detail of each flight is agreed to ahead of time by both the surveilling and the surveilled party, from the flight plan to the plane's airframe to the type of camera. These flights allow short-notice coverage of territory that is not readily photographed by satellites, which cannot be immediately shifted from fixed orbits and which cannot penetrate cloud cover optically.

No treaty adherent has benefited more from its transparency than the United States, which together with its allies overflies Russia far more often than Russia can overfly NATO countries.

The administration's May 22 notification that it will formally leave the treaty in November is fundamentally at odds with the interests of the US and its allies. In response to Trump's decision, 10 European nations, including prominent NATO allies like France and Germany, issued a statement expressing "regret" and said they will continue to implement the treaty, which "remains functioning and useful."

The administration is correct that Russia has violated the treaty by restricting overflight of certain areas, namely the Kaliningrad exclave and Russia's borders with the contested regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, which only Moscow recognizes as independent states. Those violations, while they must be addressed, do not negate the fundamental value of the treaty and certainly do not justify withdrawal.

As some members of Congress have pointed out, the notification of withdrawal is also illegal. The Open Skies Treaty was the brain-child of Republican presidents and enjoyed bipartisan support, so Congress last year included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act — which Trump himself signed — requiring the administration give 120 days' notice before announcing intent to withdraw from the treaty. The deliberate decision to ignore this requirement is yet another sign of the Trump administration's willingness to flout congressional authority.

Even setting questions of legality aside, the substance of the announcement is internally inconsistent.

The administration simultaneously argued that the treaty is not useful because Open Skies aircraft can't detect anything that is not already visible from satellites, but also that Russian planes were vacuuming up valuable information about nonmilitary infrastructure in the US. It argued that Russia's activities were inconsistent with the "spirit" — not the letter — of the treaty, while ignoring the fact that the US and its NATO allies have collected similar information in more than 500 flights over Russian territory since the treaty came into force.

Exiting the treaty will further isolate Washington from its NATO allies, all of whom urged the Trump administration to remain. Indeed, the decision seems intended to reinforce the message Trump has been sending to NATO throughout his presidency: that the 70-year-old alliance cannot rely on the United States.

NATO members that possess less advanced intelligence capabilities than the US have placed great value on the mandatory sharing among all Open Skies signatories of the images collected from surveillance flights. No NATO ally is likely to join the US in withdrawing.

There may be little immediate effect from the US withdrawal. In fact, there were no Open Skies flights conducted at all in 2018, yet this did not provoke any military disaster. Still, in the long run, withdrawing from the treaty will undoubtedly damage the national security of the US as well as its allies and partners in Europe.

The treaty's value has been demonstrated repeatedly during moments of crisis, as when Open Skies flights observed a massive Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in 2014. The sharing of such images, unlike those obtained by satellites, is immediate, and in this case may have deterred a more open Russian invasion of Ukraine. The next time crisis strikes, such as heightened tensions on Russia's borders with Georgia or Ukraine, NATO will not be able to mobilize an overflight as rapidly as it could with advanced US aircraft.

All the national security benefits of withdrawing from the treaty will accrue to Russia, which will be able to schedule more collection flights over its neighbors and NATO members, including over US bases and military deployments in Europe. And NATO's diminished capability to fly over Russia means Moscow will have greater latitude to deploy forces to its borders.

This will pose a particular risk for Ukraine, which is still in an active conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions, and which pleaded with Washington to remain in the treaty. Russia, meanwhile, can continue to argue — with increasing credibility — that it is the United States that is stoking a new arms race.

Of still greater concern is what this decision reveals about the Trump administration's approach to the very concept of arms control.

When Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, I acknowledged that US withdrawal from the treaty could be justified as a result. But I also argued that withdrawing from the INF without any action plan to redress Russia's violations was ill-advised, and only served Moscow's propaganda interests. The same critique applies doubly in this case.

Russia's violations of Open Skies are marginal, preventing coverage of less than 1% of Russian territory, and they are not central to the treaty's objectives, as was the case with Moscow's violations of the INF. In that case, Russia was not just playing games with the rules, but was repeatedly found to be building the very types of missiles whose elimination was the entire point of the INF.

The administration has made clear that it is ready to withdraw from any treaty that is not being implemented fully. Of course, it is also prepared to withdraw from agreements that are being implemented fully, as with the Iran nuclear deal. It appears to believe — despite the complete absence of evidence to support it — that this approach increases pressure on Russia and will force it to compromise on this and related nuclear issues.

The same preference for confrontation over restraint seems also to be the motivating factor for the administration's dithering on the urgent need to renew the New START Treaty, the only remaining treaty that verifiably limits the strategic deployed nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.

Trump says he would prefer a better deal involving not just Russia but also China. But because a complex new agreement simply cannot be concluded before the treaty's expiration in February 2021, many experts suspect Trump's rationale is simply a pretext for leaving New START.

In another sign that Trump's team is prepared to escalate tensions, The Washington Post recently reported that White House officials discussed the potential of resuming US nuclear weapons testing, which would break a moratorium that has been in place since 1992.

A senior official speaking to the Post claimed that by demonstrating the US ability to "rapid test" a nuclear device, it could put pressure on Russia and China in future arms control negotiations. In fact, such a move would instead give a green light to China, Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan to break their own nuclear test moratoriums, which could help them develop new and more dangerous warhead designs. This would unquestionably undermine American and global security, and yet the Trump team considers it a feasible option.

Trump has brought to crucial arms control issues the same approach he has brought to domestic politics, not to mention his personal legal and business issues: petulance, egomania, bullying and short-sightedness. Members of Congress from both parties have an opportunity in the coming days and weeks to take a principled stand, not only in favor of continued Open Skies adherence, but also against reckless tests of nuclear weapons for the purpose of political messaging.

Thomas Countryman is chair of the board of directors at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. He was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer for 35 years until retiring in 2017, having most recently served as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Read the original article on World Politics Review, June 1, 2020.

Country Resources:

U.S. to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, May 27, 2020

U.S. to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty The United States officially gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty in May, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies. President Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said , “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however,...

Welcome to the New Home for Project for the CTBT!

The Project for the CTBT first emerged when the Obama administration stated that it would pursue the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ( CTBT ). “To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” President Barack Obama said in Prague in April 2009. Unfortunately, the treaty’s ratification by the United States has yet to pass. The purpose of the Project for the CTBT is to provide the public and policymakers with sound information and analysis about the treaty so as to...

U.S. Seeks Iran Arms Embargo Extension | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert

U.S. Seeks Iran Arms Embargo Extension The United States is considering a range of options to prevent the October 2020 expiration of a UN embargo that restricts arms sales to and from Iran. Those options include making a legal case that the United States remains a bona fide participant of the nuclear deal with Iran that it withdrew from in May 2018 in order to use a Security Council provision to block the embargo’s expiration. The embargo’s October 2020 expiration date is written into UN Security Council Resolution 2231 , which endorses and helps implement the nuclear deal, formally called...

Responses to Audience Questions from April 29 New START Briefing

Top former U.S. administration officials last week expressed support for a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), the last remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that is set to expire in February 2021. “Put me down in the column of extension, and the reason for that is the clock is running,” said Admiral (ret.) Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April 29 event hosted by the Arms Control Association. Rose Gottemoeller, lead U.S. negotiator for the treaty, and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Frank...

Potential U.S. Open Skies Withdrawal Announcement Coming Soon | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch

Potential U.S. Open Skies Withdrawal Announcement Coming Soon The United States could officially submit its intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty by the end of September, despite strong support for the treaty in Congress and from allies and former U.S. officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have decided to move forward with a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, the Guardian reported April 5. The report indicated that a statement of intent would be forthcoming soon, with official notification to withdraw coming likely by the end of September. Per the...

Iran Delays Announcing Nuclear Achievements | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert

Iran Delays Announcing Nuclear Achievements The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced March 27 that it developed a new advanced centrifuge and would unveil the machine in April, but it appears that event may have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The AEOI may have intended to display the new centrifuge during a ceremony marking the country’s National Nuclear Technology Day, an annual event during which officials recap the country’s nuclear accomplishments of the past year. National Nuclear Technology Day was scheduled for April 8, but Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman...

OPCW Investigation Confirms Syria Responsible for Three Chemical Attacks in 2017

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded with confidence that Syria’s Air Force was responsible for sarin and chlorine attacks on the rebel-held town of Ltamenah in March 2017. The OPCW’s findings are detailed in an inaugural April 8 report by the organization’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), a body established with a mandate to attribute responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Chemical weapons attacks have continued on an irregular basis throughout the country’s ongoing civil war, despite Syria’s accession to the Chemical...

IAEA Raises Safeguards Questions | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert

IAEA Raises Safeguards Questions International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi raised concerns in March about Tehran’s failure to cooperate with an agency investigation into possible storage and use of undeclared nuclear materials at three locations in Iran. In a March 3 report to the agency’s Board of Governors, Grossi outlined the agency’s efforts since January 2019 to request information from Iran about activities at the sites and documented Tehran’s refusal to cooperate with the agency’s investigation. Iran also refused the IAEA’s request in January 2020 to...

The IAEA’s March Reports on Iran’s Nuclear Activities Raise Questions

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) distributed two reports on Iran’s nuclear program March 3 that raise new questions about the country’s nuclear activities and its international legal obligations. The IAEA’s most recent regular quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal (issued March 3 and made public March 11) notes a concerning increase in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium and its number of operating centrifuge machines. However, Tehran’s continued compliance with the monitoring measures put in place by the agreement, known as the Joint...

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Arms Control Now Blog