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Trump will withdraw from ‘Open Skies’ arms control treaty

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in June last year.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in June last year. Susan Walsh/Associated Press/File 2019/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump has decided to withdraw from another major arms control accord, according to senior administration officials, and will inform Russia on Friday that the United States is pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, negotiated three decades ago to allow nations to fly over each other’s territory with elaborate sensor equipment to assure they are not preparing for military action.

Trump’s decision may be viewed as more evidence he is preparing to exit the one major arms treaty remaining with Russia: New START, which limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear missiles each. It expires in February, weeks after the next presidential inauguration, and Trump has insisted China must join what is now a US-Russia limit on nuclear arsenals.

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US officials have long complained Moscow was violating Open Skies by not permitting flights over a city where it was believed Russia was deploying nuclear weapons that could reach Europe, as well as barring flights over major military exercises. (Satellites, the main source for gathering intelligence, are not affected by the treaty.)

“You reach a point at which you need to say enough is enough,” said Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s new special representative for arms control. “The United States cannot keep participating in this treaty if Russia is going to violate it with impunity.”

US officials also note that Trump was angered by a Russian flight directly over his Bedminster, N.J., golf estate in 2017. And in classified reports, the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have contended the Russians are using flights over the United States to map out critical infrastructure that could be hit by cyberattacks.

But much of that data is now publicly available, and mapping the network vulnerabilities is best done online, not from aircraft or outer space.

Trump’s decision is bound to aggravate European allies, including those in NATO, who are also signatories to the treaty.

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They are likely to remain in the accord, which has about three dozen signatories, but have warned that, with Washington’s exit, Russia will almost certainly respond by also cutting off their flights, which the allies use to monitor troop movements on their borders — especially important to the Baltic nations.

For Trump, the decision is the third time he has renounced a major arms control treaty. Two years ago, he abandoned the Iran nuclear accord, negotiated by President Barack Obama. Last year, he left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, again saying that he would not participate in a treaty that he said Russia was violating. Open Skies was negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Russia has said the engagement in the treaty is valuable. Billingslea and his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, disagree.

Under the treaty, Trump’s formal notice to Russia and other signatories starts a six-month clock toward final withdrawal. It requires a meeting of all signatories within 60 days. While US officials have held out the possibility of agreements that could halt withdrawal, that seems unlikely. The same six-month delay in withdrawal last year from the INF treaty did not result in any meaningful discussion. Trump left open the possibility of renegotiation, but his aides see that as unlikely.

“There’s a chance we may make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal.”

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Conservatives have been pressing Trump to withdraw for some time, despite his own periodic musings about his friendship with President Vladimir Putin and his desire for a good relationship with Russia. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a longtime proponent of withdrawal, said in a statement, “It was long past time for the United States to withdraw from this treaty and stop allowing Russia to use our skies to spy on the American people.”

But that was the entire premise: that the “spying” would build confidence that neither side was preparing for military action.

“The transparency it provides has helped prevent miscalculation and misunderstandings that could have otherwise led to conflict,” said John F. Tierney, a former Democratic representative from Massachusetts who is executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “This has become a reckless pattern” for the Trump administration.