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Trump says US will withdraw from Open Skies Treaty, blames Russia

Trump says US will withdraw from Open Skies Treaty, blames Russia
US President Donald Trump has notified allies he will withdraw from one of the few remaining arms control mechanisms – the Open Skies Treaty – this week, citing alleged Russian 'violations' of the pact.

"Russia did not adhere to the treaty," Trump told reporters on his way to Michigan on Thursday afternoon. He added that the US could return to the treaty, or negotiate a new one with Moscow, without elaborating.

The Open Skies Treaty, which has been in force since 2002, allows for unarmed aerial surveillance flights to be conducted over the territories of its participants. American personnel are on board the Russian flights over the US, while Russian personnel are on board during flights over Russia.

Russia has not violated the treaty, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Thursday. He added there is nothing to prevent discussions on technical issues that the US claims to represent violations, and that US withdrawal ultimately hurts the interests of European countries that are NATO members.

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According to administration officials briefing reporters on background, Russia has restricted flights over Moscow, the republic of Chechnya, and near Abkhazia and South Ossetia - which the US considers parts of Georgia but Russia recognized as independent countries in 2008.

Moscow has previously pointed out that the US fleet of spy planes has been largely grounded as of late, due to lack of funding and maintenance, and Washington has used that to deny legitimate flyover requests to others.

US exit from the treaty could lead to "a new arms race," said a spokesman for the UN Secretary General, according to RIA Novosti.

No official notification has arrived from Washington, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, describing Open Skies as a "fundamental agreement strengthening security in Europe."

According to the New York Times, a formal notice will be sent to Russia on Friday. Moscow has been expecting the move for some time, fueled by rumors in US media. Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the decision “has already been taken in Washington.”

Lavrov said European members of the treaty are unlikely to pull out, because they understand it has “value as an instrument [to secure] trust, predictability, and transparency.”

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The fact that the Open Skies Treaty explicitly allows for surveillance flights over member countries has not stopped some US lawmakers and officials from whipping up hysteria when they take place. Last year, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden created panic on Twitter when a Russian plane flew over Chicago under the terms of the treaty.

That has not stopped Trump's critics to paint the decision to abandon the treaty as a “gift to Putin,” in the words of one former senior director at the National Security Council.

Also on rt.com ‘Gift to Putin!’ Meltdown as House Democrat claims Trump plans to ditch Open Skies treaty

The US abandonment of the agreement is the latest in a series of decisions by the Trump administration to withdraw from international security accords. Last year, his administration abandoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, also citing alleged Russian violations, but unable to offer any evidence. The US military tested a missile that had been banned under the treaty soon thereafter. 

The move prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest that the US was gearing up for a new “unrestrained arms race.”

The last major arms control accord between the US and Russia, the New START Treaty that limits both countries to 1,550 deployed nuclear missiles, is due to expire shortly after the next presidential inauguration in January 2021. Washington has been stalling on negotiating its continuation, despite Moscow’s offer to extend it as is.

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