One cannot say that Donald Trump has a preference for multilateral treaties. The multi-billionaire in the White House not only led his country out of the Paris climate protection agreement during his term of office and stopped free trade agreements such as the proposed TTIP agreement with the EU. Under his leadership, the United States also withdrew from the INF treaty with Russia, an arms control agreement for the limitation of medium-range nuclear missiles, last year. This reminded many observers of the dangerous times during the Cold War, when Europe was often lucky to escape the catastrophe.
On Thursday, the United States took a further step towards becoming – in the view of Trump and the US Republicans – fully operational again in terms of foreign and arms policy: the US president announced in Washington that his country was leaving the arms control treaty “Open Skies” (Open sky).
The openness that echoes in the name of the treaty refers to a right that belongs to all member states: namely to carry out unarmed military reconnaissance flights over the territories of all other contracting states. How many flights a country has to allow per year and how many it is entitled to, is determined with certain quotas. No state has the right to prevent or restrict the reconnaissance flights represented by the agreement.
According to the US presentation, this is exactly what should have happened. And from Washington’s point of view, the culprit is once again to be found in Moscow. Russia is said to have prevented flights over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, arguing that these are independent states that are not party to the agreement. The West sees the areas as part of Georgia. Russia is also said to prevent flights over the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, the former Königsberg, where many in the West suspect Russian medium-range missiles.
So Trump will step out of the contract until the Kremlin adheres to the treaty. Russian Deputy Secretary of State Alexander Gruschko called the US exit a “blow to the foundations of European security”.
“Indeed, the overflight restrictions over Kaliningrad are not compatible with the Open Skies contract,” says political scientist Gerhard Mangott of the “Wiener Zeitung”. Nevertheless, he considers this justification of the United States to be an excuse rather than the real reason for Western supremacy to withdraw from the treaty. “The United States does not want to accept any contractual restrictions on arms control under Trump,” says Mangott. “You want complete freedom of action.”
In contrast to the INF treaty, Russia did not respond to the US move by opting out. Gruschko announced that they wanted to continue with the contract. “As long as the treaty remains in effect, we want to fully respect all the rights and obligations that arise from this agreement for us,” said the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister. He hoped that the remaining countries would do this conscientiously.
That could well be the case. Because not only Russia would like to keep the agreement because of the rights to fly over American bases in Europe – even though there are reconnaissance satellites. Many smaller NATO countries are also interested in the treaty – also because they do not have such satellites. These NATO countries had asked the United States not to leave the treaty before leaving.
“We have very good relations with Russia”
Even Trump did not rule out negotiations with Russia to continue the contract. “We have had very good relations with Russia recently,” said the President of the United States.
There are doubts whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will really do him a favor. Especially since the Russian-American relationship has also deteriorated under Trump. The two powers are in a spiral of mistrust, which is further reinforced by the impossibility of overflight rights.