Russia to withdraw from Open Skies defence treaty

Russia has said it will withdraw from a defence treaty that allows member nations to make unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territory, following the US decision to exit the pact last year.

Moscow’s decision effectively cripples the 2002 treaty, which was drawn up as a confidence-building measure following the cold war, and allowed Russia and Nato members to use observation flights to monitor each others’ military facilities and troop deployments.

The announcement, which comes just a few days before Joe Biden is sworn in as US president, means there is only one remaining major defence pact between Russia and the west, which is set to expire next month. Mr Biden has criticised the US withdrawal from Open Skies and said it increases the risk of conflict.

The steady collapse of bilateral defence pacts, including a treaty that banned intermediate-range cruise missiles, has become emblematic of souring relations between Russia and the west, and the US in particular, over the past decade.

The US withdrawal last November “destroyed the balance of interests [the signatories] reached when the Treaty was signed, inflicted severe damage to its functioning and undermined the role of the Open Skies Treaty as a confidence and security building measure,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement announcing that it would begin the formal process to withdraw from the pact.

When the US announced its plans to pull out in May last year, the Trump administration blamed Moscow, claiming that it had barred US flights over sensitive areas of Russian territory. The foreign ministry on Friday said that was “an artificial pretext”.

Russia had entered into talks with the other 33 members following the US withdrawal with “specific proposals” to safeguard its continued participation — referring to demands that other Nato members would not share information gained on Russian surveillance flights with the US — but found no support for them, the ministry added.

Nato said it had “taken note” of Russia’s intention to withdraw. It said Moscow’s “selective implementation” of its Open Skies obligations had undermined “the contribution of this important treaty to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region”.

The US has previously alleged Russia violated the agreement by refusing to allow flights over its heavily militarised Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, as well as along Russia’s border with Georgia and over military exercises. Russia says the US restricts flights over Alaska.

“All Nato allies remain committed to effective international arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation — which are essential for our security,” Nato said. “We also remain open to dialogue in the Nato-Russia Council on risk reduction and transparency.”

The pact’s demise is a particular blow to EU countries as they prized the access it gave to Russian military movements, particularly at the bloc’s borders.

The EU said it was “analysing” the Russian statement and would respond later.

The collapse of the Open Skies treaty means the bilateral New Start agreement, which caps the number of nuclear warheads held by the US and Russia, is the sole remaining major defence pact between Moscow and the west.

That is set to expire on February 5, unless both sides are able to agree on a last-minute extension.

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