The world’s two nuclear superpowers have never unleashed their atomic arsenals against one another, but two longstanding agreements that have helped keep the United States and Russia from doing so now appear to be on the verge of collapse.
On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that strategic (read: nuclear) talks with the U.S. scheduled for this month have been “postponed indefinitely,” according to the Russian Interfax news agency. Those talks had been expected to center on a possible 5-year extension of the 2010 New Start nuclear arms control treaty, which is set to expire 16 days after the next U.S. presidential inauguration.
“The ball is now in the Americans’ court,” Interfax quotes the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Vladimir Leontyev as telling reporters. “We are looking forward to their decision and to them saying who will represent them and when we can resume our discussions on strategic stability issues.”
But the Trump administration shows little inclination to play ball. A senior White House official said in May that President Trump will not make a decision about extending the only remaining major nuclear accord with Russia until next year. The U.S. State Department has been without a top nuclear weapons negotiator since Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson quit in September.
It may already be too late to work out an extension of New START. Russia’s Foreign Ministry contends that with the time that remains before the treaty’s Feb. 5, 2021, expiration, it will be impossible to complete a new document that could extend the arms pact.
There are also growing signs that the Trump administration may be pulling out of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. That pact, which has been in effect since 2002, allows American and Russian unarmed surveillance aircraft to fly over and photograph one another’s territory, including military installations.
Last week two of the Open Skies pact’s harshest congressional critics, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced a Senate resolution demanding the U.S. ditch the treaty.
Trump has also reportedly signed a document this year declaring his intention to pull out of the Open Skies treaty. Doing so would require a six-month advance notice to the pact’s 33 other signatories, which in addition to Russia include most NATO allies and Ukraine.
At last week’s Senate confirmation hearing of Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who’s nominated to fill the vacant U.S. ambassador’s post in Moscow, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., suggested it was former National Security Advisor John Bolton who prodded Trump to abjure the overflight arrangement with Moscow.
“I have received information,” Markey told Sullivan, “that before John Bolton resigned, President Trump may have made a decision to exit the Open Skies Treaty.”
Sullivan would neither confirm nor deny such a decision had been made. “I inquired as to whether we had withdrawn from the treaty and was assured we had not,” Sullivan told Markey, adding that if the U.S. were to pull out, “there would need to be substantial evidence to support the national security interests for withdrawal from that treaty.”
Arms control experts say pulling out of the treaty would be a mistake. “It’s really hard to see what we would gain from withdrawing from the treaty,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer tells NPR. “We actually conduct many more flights over Russia than Russia conducts over the United States.”
A compilation done at the end of the Obama administration shows the U.S. flew three times as many surveillance flights over Russia under the treaty as Russia did over the U.S.
“It’s a very useful way for the parties to be on the same page about who has what, where,” says Olga Oliker, Europe program director for the International Crisis Group. And even though both the U.S. and Russia have sophisticated spy satellites, their ability to capture images can be stymied by clouds that surveillance planes can fly under. “It gives you access,” says Oliker, “to things that even if you have a satellite network you might not be able to see.”
Critics say Russia has failed to comply with the treaty by restricting U.S. overflights.
“Perhaps rather than calling this the Open Skies Treaty,” Sen. Cotton said last month at the confirmation hearing of Adm. Charles Richard’s nomination to head the U.S. Strategic Command, “maybe it should be called the Open Skies Over America and the Closed Skies Over Russia Treaty.”
Russia has effectively placed its heavily militarized enclave of Kaliningrad off-limits for American overflights and has likewise placed restrictions over the Russian-occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Republic of Georgia. The U.S. has in turn curtailed Russian flights over Hawaii and Alaska.
The admiral designated to command U.S. nuclear forces defended the Open Skies Treaty at his confirmation hearing. “We do derive some benefit from it, particularly with our allies,” Richards told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Alluding to Russia’s modernization of its surveillance aircraft and the failure of the U.S. to update its own fleet, he added, “We would need to make the appropriate resource and operational commitments to utilize the full provisions of the treaty if we were to remain.”
Oliker says the U.S. does need to upgrade or replace its surveillance planes. “If it doesn’t, then it really does stop getting any value for the U.S. from the treaty — not because a treaty has no value, but because America’s airplanes don’t work.”
Already this year, the U.S. has withdrawn from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, which obliged the U.S. and the Soviet Union to destroy all of their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with flight ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration had before, accused Russia of violating that treaty.
Whereas previous administrations have largely sought to sustain arms control agreements, Trump has shown no affinity for international pacts. Having abandoned the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement and the INF treaty, his string of broken legacy accords now appears likely to stretch further.
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