Does international arms control still have a future? Donald Trump’s recent announcement raises doubts and worries the NATO partners. Does the last major disarmament contract come to an end?
The representatives of the federal government did not even try to hide frustration and disappointment with the new setback. “I very much regret the US announcement to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty,” Defense Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Friday. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had said similarly shortly before. He also speaks of regret and even accuses the United States of ignoring the interests of European NATO partners.
“The Open Skies Treaty is an important part of the European arms control architecture,” explains Maas. “It contributes to security and peace in practically the entire northern hemisphere.”
Mutual control should make the world safer
The contract that moved Maas and Kramp-Karrenbauer into such clear words had once been a milestone. Signed in 1992, it enables the contracting parties to inspect the territory of the other side in compliance with certain rules.
The main goals are transparency and confidence building after long years of the Cold War. So far, Russia has seen from the air how military facilities and bases are developing in Europe and the United States. The other way around, the Americans and their NATO partners were allowed to fly into Russian airspace for observation flights.
There are clear rules for the flights. For example, it is jointly determined what camera technology can be used. The necessary control is provided by the agreement that the state being observed from the air has the right to accompany the flight with its own experts.
Unable to explain the move
For the United States, however, there is obviously no great interest in this type of international agreement. They justified their withdrawal announcement from Open Skies on Thursday with disputes with Russia, but cannot even explain to NATO partners correctly why they lead to a decision as far-reaching as the withdrawal from the contract. The US arguments are “not substantial”, according to European alliances.
For example, one US criticism relates to the fact that Russia has restricted the flight routes over the Kaliningrad exclave and has imposed a flight ban on a ten-kilometer-wide strip on the controversial borders of Georgia. Both conflicts could “be ended pragmatically”, security expert Wolfgang Richter recently analyzed in an analysis for the Science and Politics Foundation.
The Colonel a.D. also US allegations that Russia could use flights over the USA for “espionage”. The accusation is “a relapse into the language of the Cold War” and goes nowhere, Richter writes. Before the flights, US inspectors could check the sensors of the Russian aircraft. During the flights, there would always be US escort teams on board to ensure that the contractual rules and the agreed flight profiles were observed.
The next international agreement is damaged
It is suspected that the United States will withdraw from the treaty because President Donald Trump would rather not be bound by international agreements than by those that are complicated or do not fully correspond to his interests. The US government made it clear once again when the US announced its withdrawal that the abolition of US reconnaissance flights via Russia would not mean that less information was available because of the satellite surveillance options available today.
Trump had already left numerous other international agreements with similarly selfish arguments, including the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris World Climate Agreement and the INF treaty banning land-based mid-range nuclear weapons. The latter had been concluded between the United States and the Soviet Union and was the most important nuclear disarmament treaty in Europe.
Will Russia leave the treaty too?
It is unclear how the Open Sky Treaty will continue. Russia stressed on Friday that it wanted to stick to the agreement despite the US withdrawal. In NATO circles, however, it is feared that these promises could soon be history. This is because Russia will be at a significant disadvantage in the future due to the withdrawal of the USA, because NATO countries are allowed to fly over Russia, but Russia is not the most powerful NATO member USA.
However, concerns in Germany and other European countries are even greater that withdrawal from open skies could only be another harbinger of an even greater setback in arms control efforts. On February 5, 2021, New Start, the last major bilateral nuclear disarmament agreement between the two leading nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, will expire – and many experts fear that Trump will refuse to extend it.
The US government has long been pushing to involve China in the talks about the New Start treaty. Beijing, however, rejects this.