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2020.05.22 16:29

US pulls out of Open Skies treaty, citing Russia’s actions on Lithuania’s doorstep

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Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2020.05.22 16:29

Citing Moscow’s unwillingness to cooperate in the Kaliningrad exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, Washington has said it will withdraw from the Open Skies arms control treaty in six months.

This marks the latest move by US President Donald Trump’s administration to pull out of major international treaties due to alleged breaches by Russia.

Signed in 1992 and coming into effect a decade later, the treaty allows 35 member countries, including NATO members and Russia, to observe each other’s military installations at a short notice.

Read more: Baltic, US observers fly over military sites in Belarus and Russia

In the statement published on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia placed restrictions on flights around Russia’s Kaliningrad amidst a military build-up that may include “short-range nuclear-tipped missiles targeting NATO”.

Russia has routinely deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, most recently in 2018.

In February, Lithuanian intelligence services also said Russia had deployed additional missile systems and was establishing a new infantry division in Kaliningrad, which “will lead to a further increase of weapons and equipment in the vicinity of Lithuania”.

Pompeo said Russia denied access to observe Russia’s border with Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, aiming to portray “the occupied territories [as] are independent states”. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia over the two breakaway areas.

In another cited breach, Moscow has designated the annexed Crimean peninsula as a refueling base for Open Skies’ aircraft, in breach of international law.

Meanwhile, there's a “very good chance we'll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together”, said Trump, adding that “Russia didn't adhere to the treaty. So, until they adhere, we will pull out.”

Pompeo claimed Moscow has used the treaty as “a tool to facilitate military coercion,” using it to “support an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the US and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions”.

Both Pompeo’s and Trump's statements have hinted that Washington would “reconsider” its withdrawal if Russia was to fully comply with the treaty.

While some Republican US politicians have welcomed the move, it was criticised by the Democrats as well as the former director of CIA, Michael Hayden, calling the move “insane”.

What the US is saying:

– Russia has restricted flights over Russia’s Kaliningrad, near Lithuania and Poland, a site of military build-up that may host “nuclear-tipped” missiles.

– Russia has placed altitude restrictions on flights over Moscow.

– Russia doesn't allow planes within 10 kilometres of its border with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

– Russia has designated Crimea as a refuelling base, trying to cement Moscow’s claim over the Ukrainian peninsula.

– Washington would have exited the treaty “long ago”, if it weren’t for European allies that value the agreement.

– Russia’s violations of the treaty do not come in isolation and come on top of infringements of other treaties.

– The US has previously restricted Russian flights over Alaska and Hawaii in response, according to RFE/RL.

What Russia is saying:

– Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said “the withdrawal by the US from this treaty would be not only a blow to the foundation of European security [...] but to the key security interests of the allies of the US”.

– “Nothing prevents continuing the discussions over the technical issues which the US is misrepresenting as violations by Russia,” he was quoted by Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

What Lithuania is saying:

– Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius told LRT English that “Russia’s unilateral restrictions” are known to other states besides the US, and Lithuania “understands and respects” Washington’s decision.

– “We will urge [other countries] to increase joint pressure on Russia,” said Linkevičius, adding that “we think that it’s possible and necessary to save the treaty”.

– According to Linkevičius, the Open Skies treaty has been only selectively implemented by Russia. And although imperfect, it’s “better than nothing and worth saving”.

– “Many NATO states think that it’s important to maintain [the treaty by] applying pressure on Russia to return to the implementation stage, [and] that the agreement would not only be implemented, but also it would be possible to check on its implementation,” said Linkevičius. “It would prevent the Americans from leaving,” he added, as Washington has only announced it would do so in six months.

What the EU is saying:

– In December last year, an EU spokesperson told EurActiv in Brussels that Europeans tried to influence the US position with a letter to US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, while the UK, France and Germany also declared a joint position.

– German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he “very much regrets the announcement”, stressing that despite the “difficulties in implementing the treaty on the Russian side in recent years, in our view this does not justify termination, as I have repeatedly made clear to foreign minister Pompeo with my colleagues from France, Poland and the UK”.

Other arms control treaties

Washington has previously withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in October 2018 after accusing Russia of violations.

The last major Cold War-era arms control treaty, New START, is scheduled to expire in February 2021. The Trump administration has balked at extending the agreement, saying the deal should also include China.

The New START agreement caps the number of nuclear warheads that can be held by the US and Russia.

Trump’s lead negotiator for the treaty, Marshall Billingslea, has said the US will hold talks with Moscow, even though Beijing has not signalled intentions to join the first meeting.

But “the United States cannot keep participating in this treaty if Russia is going to violate it with impunity”, Billingslea said, according to RFE/RL.