The United States keeps campaigning against Washington's withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, which involves lawmakers, party figures, particularly Democrats, and some of the country's media. CNN had even announced it could happen pretty soon.
The Treaty on Open Skies is an international agreement stipulating a regime of survey flights over the territories of its member states to monitor the implementation of arms control agreements. It was originally signed in March 1992 in Helsinki by representatives of 27 countries to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was later renamed the OSCE.
The Treaty empowers its participants to fly over each other's territories with the purpose of observing activities based on the quotas for conducting observation flights by means of specially equipped military aircraft. It contains requirements as to such aircraft and surveillance gear on their board, lays down the rules for processing the collected information that makes it to the data bank accessible to all the member states. The initiative to conclude such a Treaty belongs to the United States.
The Treaty does not provide for any possible restrictions on observation flights on secrecy and national security grounds. However, under Article VIII, an observed party may prohibit another country's flight if it violates the outlined procedures or requirements as to the aircraft's equipment or route.
The impetus to the campaign to preserve this Treaty was given in early October by Democratic party representative and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot L. Engel. According to him, the current US administration is considering a unilateral withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. The senior Congressman's letter to National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien expresses deep concern over a possible denunciation of this act, which entered into force in 2002, and urges to abstain from such a "reckless action".
Elliot Engel motivated his alarmist stance by the fact that this agreement provides military transparency for its 34 signatory countries (comprising mainly NATO members and seven former Soviet states, including Russia). The value of preserving the United States in the Treaty, according to the Chairman of the mentioned committee, enables them and their allies to monitor the deployment of the Russian armed forces and, in particular, to collect information "on Russian military action in Ukraine." The lawmaker has also pointed out that Washington's withdrawal from the 2002 Treaty would harm its allies and partners, as well as American security interests.
The press services of the White House and the State Department chose not to assess the letter by Congressman Eliot Engel, resorting to their traditional phrasing: "We don't comment on issues being under consideration." But there is another striking circumstance at the same time: these informed American government sources have not refuted the legislator's words.
The fact remains that it is not the first time Washington raises the issue of quitting the Open Skies Treaty, referring to some "violations" by the Russian side. Thus, it unreasonably demanded freedom of inspection flights in areas of international passenger air routes over the Kaliningrad region heading to the only civil airfield of Khrabrovo; came down on the equipment of Russian observation planes without the slightest grounds; did not allow Russian crews fly over Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands with their strategic missile defense system facilities; and randomly imposed restrictive measures against the crews of Russian surveillance aircraft, prohibiting them from night stops at a number of transit stations in the American territory on their long way to observation areas.
According to Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu, Washington manipulates international law, seeking to change the current European conventional arms control regime in its favor, as well as to narrow Russia's capabilities under the Open Skies Treaty. He stated this at a Defense Ministry Board session in February this year.
Back in August last year, President Donald Trump signed the country's defense budget for fiscal year 2019, which, in particular, has froze cooperation with Russia on the Open Skies Treaty until "Moscow returns to its compliance." The document reads that the American administration has intended to limit fiscal provisions in case of certain decisions by the Open Skies Consultative Committee. In particular, Washington disapproved of requests by other member states to certify infrared and other cutting-edge sensors installed on the aircraft of inspection teams, that were not limited to this multilateral agreement.
Doesn't this approach remind of the United States' sophisticated attempts to crawl out of the INF Treaty under the same baseless pretexts of "non-compliance" on part of the Russian side?
Moscow had and still has compelling reasons to withdraw from the mentioned Treaty because of Washington's numerous violations and loose interpretation of its provisions. But Moscow has consistently expressed hope for its full implementation by the American side and tried to fix the emerging issues at a specially created Open Skies Consultative Committee.
What would happen if the United States virtually denounced the Open Skies Treaty?
Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel has a clear picture of this. According to him, the current US administration's refusal to be part of the Treaty will undermine Washington's credibility as a "predictable" partner in regard to ensuring European security. "If the Administration is indeed considering a change of status on the Treaty, it must be part of a transparent process that includes a thorough interagency review and consultation with Congress, and that provides other signatories a clear understanding of your intentions," the lawmaker said in his letter. " To my knowledge, the Administration has not held significant consultations with our allies and partners on this matter. Such consultations are a prerequisite to successfully navigate any major policy shift with the Treaty," he went on to say.
The subsequent particular moves by the United States will certainly demonstrate the way the events around the Open Skies Treaty are going to unfold. Denouncing this international arms control act will imply at least one thing: Washington is ripping up not only agreements to deter nuclear-missile weapons, but also the pre-developed substantive measures of openness and trust that are already on the decrease between it and Moscow in this important area due to the American side's destructive line as regards the arms race restraint in many areas.