The Trump administration has quit yet another arms control deal, one meant to build trust between the US and Russia. As Teri Schultz reports from Brussels, observers in Europe and the US are unnerved by a worrying trend.
NATO allies had long been warned by the Trump administration that it didn’t see the value in staying in the Open Skies Treaty that allows the 34 signatories to fly over each other’s territory in an effort to boost transparency and trust. But unlike the unity that was eventually achieved by the time Washington withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last year, Europeans have not empathetically accepted the decision to dump Open Skies, which they consider an effective contribution to global security.
After a special NATO session on Friday to discuss next steps, the statement read out by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was little more than a compilation of long-held views reconfirming NATO’s commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation and a relatively mild rebuke that Russia’s “selective implementation” of its obligations “has undermined” the treaty.
NATO noted US plans to “reconsider its withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance,” and pledged further efforts toward convincing the Kremlin to do so, which it suggested should happen at “the earliest date possible.”
Trump predicts ‘positive’ outcome
US President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to think ditching the agreement is a big deal. “I think that the Open Sky [sic] will all work out,” he said Thursday, previewing the formal notification of withdrawal. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they’re going to want to make a deal…I think something very positive will work out.”
Other governments appear to be less certain of that outcome.
At Friday’s NATO meeting, French Ambassador Muriel Domenach read out a statement signed by 11 governments, including Germany, France, Finland and Sweden. “We regret the announcement by the US government,” said Domenach, “although we share their concerns about implementation of the treaty clauses by Russia.”
But in a clear rebuttal to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s conclusion that such concerns amount to Moscow using Open Skies to “undermine international peace and security,” the Foreign Ministries insisted the accord “remains functioning and useful” and has “clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security.”
Open Skies one of a kind
Retired Colonel Wolfgang Richter, now with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, spent many years working on arms control and verification regimes and sees Open Skies as essential for transparency. He emphasized the unique significance of the raw data gathered by Open Skies surveillance, which is shared with all 34 member countries, some of which don’t even have their own systems to gather such information.
Richter believes weakening the agreement carries a bigger price than bearing the Russian violations, which he doesn’t consider material breaches, in the short term. “There are implementation problems with the Russians, that is true, but they are not so severe that you cannot pursue the purpose of the treaty,” Richter told DW.
He said the Kremlin will likely react by also deciding to quit Open Skies, lamenting that “we lose one instrument of cooperative security after the other.”
Lukasz Kulesa, a senior researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, doesn’t necessarily agree that Moscow will follow Washington out. “If the Russians are shrewd, they will stay in the treaty,” he told DW, “and get closer to those of the European countries that would be critical of the Trump approach.”