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After US, Russia withdraws from Open Skies treaty

Treaty allows signatories to conduct recon flights over each others territories

OC-135-Open-Skies-USAF A USAF Boeing OC-135B Open Skies: This aircraft flies unarmed observation flights over participating parties of the treaty | Public domain

Russia said Friday it will withdraw from an international treaty allowing observation flights over military facilities following the US exit from the pact.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty last year significantly upended the balance of interests of signatory states, adding that Moscow's proposals to keep the treaty alive after the US exit have been cold-shouldered by Washington's allies.

The ministry said Russia is now launching the relevant procedural moves to withdraw from the pact "due to the lack of progress in removing the obstacles for the treaty's functioning in the new conditions". 

The Russian parliament, which ratified the treaty in 2001, will now have to vote to leave it.

The treaty was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by allowing the accords more than three dozen signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over each others territories to collect information about military forces and activities. More than 1,500 flights have been conducted under the treaty, aimed at fostering transparency about military activity and helping monitor arms control and other agreements. 

US President Donald Trump declared Washington's intention to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty, arguing that Russian violations made it untenable for the United States to remain a party. The US completed its withdrawal from the pact in November.

Russia denied breaching the treaty, which came into force in 2002. The European Union has urged the US to reconsider and called on Russia to stay in the pact and lift flight restrictions, notably over its westernmost Kaliningrad region, which lies between NATO allies Lithuania and Poland. 

Russia has argued that the limits on flights over Kaliningrad, which hosts sizable military forces, are permissible under the treaty's terms, noting that the US has imposed more sweeping restrictions on observation flights over Alaska.

As a condition for staying in the pact after the US pullout, Moscow sought guarantees from NATO allies that they wouldn't transfer the data collected during their observation flights over Russia to the US, but was unsuccessful. 

Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said in televised remarks Friday that Russia could review its decision to withdraw if the US decides to return to the pact, but acknowledged that the prospect looks utopian.

Moscow has warned that the US withdrawal will erode global security by making it more difficult for governments to interpret the intentions of other nations, particularly amid Russia-West tensions after the Russian annexation of Ukraines Crimea in 2014.

The demise of the Open Skies Treaty follows the US and Russian withdrawal in 2019 from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. 

The INF Treaty, which was signed in 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, banned land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres (310 to 3,410 miles), weapons seen as particularly destabilising because of the shorter time they take to reach targets compared with intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The only US-Russian arms control pact still standing is the New START treaty that expires in three weeks. Moscow and Washington have discussed the possibility of its extension, but so far have failed to overcome their differences.

New START was signed in 2010 by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Arms control advocates have warned that its expiration would remove any checks on US and Russian nuclear forces, in a blow to global stability. 

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