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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


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.

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