Trump to exit arms control deal allowing military observation flights

The US is set to withdraw from an international agreement that allows nations to conduct unarmed observation flights over one another's territory - once billed as an effort to build "transparency and confidence."

The US is set to withdraw from an international agreement that allows nations to conduct unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory – once billed as an effort to build “transparency and confidence.”

The decision to exit the Open Skies treaty was initiated by US President Donald Trump, who said Russia had violated the deal.

“I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty,” Trump said at the White House on Thursday. “So until they adhere we’ll pull out, but there’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

The arms control agreement allows 34 nations, including the United States and Russia, to conduct such unarmed observation flights.

The accord was negotiated three decades ago to build trust about military activities and “avoid surprises in a cooperative way,” according to the Department of State.

Washington will submit notice of its decision to withdraw from the treaty on Friday, and the move will take effect in six months, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press release.

“We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the Treaty,” he said.

US officials claim that Moscow has violated the Open Skies accord by blocking surveillance flights around certain areas, including the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the border with Georgia, as well as denying flights over Russian military exercises.

“President Trump has made clear that the United States will not remain a party to international agreements that are being violated by the other parties and are no longer in America’s interests,” White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement.

“We look forward to negotiating with both Russia and China on a new arms control framework that moves beyond the Cold War constructs of the past and helps keep the entire world safe.”

But Russia fired back that it considers the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty to be based on an “unfounded” pretext, as Russia has not violated the agreement, a senior Russian official said.

“This is absolutely unfounded,” the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s arms control department, Vladimir Yermakov, said in comments carried by state news agency TASS.

“This is not the first time that the US is trying to present matters as if Russia is violating something as a pretext for withdrawing from agreements on arms control,” Yermakov said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany regrets the US withdrawing from the agreement. “The treaty is an important part of European arms control architecture. It contributes to security and peace in practically the entire northern hemisphere,” Maas said Thursday evening.

“We see that there have indeed been difficulties in implementing the treaty on the Russian side in recent years. In our view, this does not justify termination, Maas continued.

The German foreign minister also appealed to Russia to return to full implementation of the agreement.

Two years ago, the US initiated its withdrawal from the bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War pact banning short- and medium-range missiles, on the allegation that Russia had violated it by producing a missile operable within the prohibited range. Russia denied the claim.

Trump has withdrawn the US from several international accords, including the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate pact.

Some fear that the president is poised to leave the only agreement still in effect between Russia and the US, the New Start treaty, which keeps in check the size of their arsenals and expires next year.

NATO said that heads of state and goverment “reiterated their concern over Russia’s selective implementation” of the Open Skies treaty at the alliance’s 2018 summit, “and that this undermines our security.”

“Allies continue to consult closely on the future of the treaty and the North Atlantic Council will meet tomorrow to discuss the issue,” according to a NATO official.

Leading Democrats have strongly opposed a US withdrawal from the Open Skies deal.

“Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement, would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” they wrote in an October letter to Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The treaty was signed in 1992 to promote trust between NATO and Eastern bloc countries following the Cold War and reduce the chances of armed conflict. It entered into force in 2002.

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