US Tells Russia It Won’t Rejoin Open Skies Treaty

Citing Russia’s noncompliance and pending withdrawal, the State Department said the U.S. won’t rejoin a treaty that allows more than 30 nations to fly unarmed planes over each other’s territories.

A Russian Air Force Tu-214 flies over Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., in 2019. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration told Russia on Thursday that the United States will not rejoin the Open Skies Treaty, leaving only one major arms control agreement between the two superpowers. 

“Russia’s behavior, including its recent actions with respect to Ukraine, is not that of a partner committed to confidence-building,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email.

The treaty was negotiated nearly 30 years ago to allow the United States, NATO allies, Russia and other European countries to make unarmed military surveillance flights over each others’ territories, and was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by reducing the possibility that military activities might be misunderstood as armed attacks. 

The flights collect imagery on military activities which is shared with all 34 member-states in the treaty. More than 1,500 flights have been conducted since it took effect in 2002. 

In response to claims that Russia was violating the terms of the treaty by restricting U.S. and European surveillance flights over its territory, former President Donald Trump withdrew from the treaty last year, confident that Putin was going to come back and make a deal. He did not.

Last May, President Joe Biden condemned Trump’s move and signaled that he may want to rejoin the agreement.

“The United States and our allies would benefit from being able to observe — on short notice — what Russia and other countries in Europe were doing with their military forces,” then-candidate Biden said in a May 2020 statement, referencing that the U.S. and its allies used imagery from the treaty to support Ukraine when Russia violated its territory.

Biden had said that the U.S. should stay in the treaty while confronting and resolving Russia’s violations. 

But in January, Russia announced it was withdrawing from the treaty and last week the lower house of Russia’s parliament voted in favor of the move — essentially dooming the treaty to failure. The vote to withdrawal must still get the approval of the upper house and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it is expected to clear both hurdles.

Returning after Russia’s exit would require political will and some creative work from international lawyers, Steven Pifer, a nuclear arms control expert, wrote in a Brookings Institute article. 

The Biden administration opened a review into the decision shortly after entering office, but on Thursday, after the review was completed, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman privately informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov that the U.S. would not be returning. 

“The United States regrets that the Treaty on Open Skies has been undermined by Russia’s violations,” a State Department spokesperson said. “In concluding its review of the treaty, the United States therefore does not intend to seek to rejoin it, given Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance.”

Now, only one major arms control treaty remains in place between the U.S. and Russia, the New START Treaty, which was set to expire in February before the Biden administration moved quickly to renew it.

The move comes ahead of Biden’s June 16 meeting with Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point in decades. 

A Russian embassy spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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