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US officially withdrawing from Open Skies Treaty

Open Skies plane
US Air Force photo of an OC-135 Open Skies aircraft

The United States will formally submit a notification of its decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty on Friday, the defense department said in an announcement.

Pentagon justified the decision by saying that Russia increasingly used the treaty to support “propaganda narratives in an attempt to justify Russian aggression against its neighbors” and “may use it for military targeting against the United States and its allies”.

It was added that US obligations under the treaty would effectively end in six months.

The Trump administration’s decision to leave the treaty was criticized by many, including Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot L. Engel, who said that such a decision would be a gift to Russia and a blow to United States national security interests, endangering Ukraine and other key European allies.

European Leadership Network, a group of retired military leaders, has previously pointed out that a US withdrawal would prevent the United States from overflying Russia but would leave Russia still able to overfly American military activities and installations in Europe. US departure would also further weaken the international arms control architecture and be a further blow to any global sense of stability.

In its statement, Pentagon said the United States declared Russia in violation of the treaty in 2017, for limiting flight distances over the Kaliningrad Oblast to 500 kilometers (km) and for denying flights within 10 km of portions of the Georgian-Russian border. Most recently, in September 2019, Russia violated the Treaty again by denying a flight over a major military exercise, preventing the exact transparency the Treaty is meant to provide.

“Make no mistake: Russia alone bears responsibility for these developments, and for the continued erosion of the arms control architecture,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said commenting on the decision.

“We remain committed to effective arms control that advances US, ally, and partner security, that is verifiable and enforceable, and that includes partners that comply responsibly with their obligations. But we cannot remain in arms control agreements that are violated by the other side, and that are actively being used not to support but rather to undermine international peace and security.”

“As noted, we may be willing to reconsider this decision if Russia demonstrates a return to full compliance with this confidence-building treaty, but without such a change of course from the Kremlin, our path will lead to withdrawal in six months’ time.”