Open Skies withdrawal throws nuclear treaty into question
President Trump’s move this week to withdraw from an international pact meant to prevent accidental war has added to concerns about the fate of a separate arms control treaty with Russia.
The Trump administration says formal talks with Moscow on extending the New START agreement, which places limits on deployed nuclear warheads, will start imminently. But after Trump announced Thursday he is withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, arms control advocates raised fresh doubt about the future of New START, which is set to expire in February.
Trump has shown deep skepticism toward international agreements — and those negotiated under the Obama administration in particular — but the administration insists it hasn’t given up on arms control.
Asked during an interview on Fox News if the White House would also pull out of New START, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said, “I don’t think so.”
“We’re going to enter into good faith negotiations with the Russians on nuclear arms control,” O’Brien told Fox’s Martha MacCallum. “We think it’s important. The president feels it’s very important. That is maybe the most important issue a president faces, is protecting the American people and keeping them safe from nuclear proliferation and the threat of a nuclear attack.”
But the person Trump has tapped to negotiate an extension or replacement has made no guarantees, saying at a think tank event this past week he’s “not going to speculate” on whether the treaty will be extended “at this very early stage” and arguing the United States could win an arms race if need be.
“We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” Marshall Billingslea, the special presidential envoy for arms control, said during a Hudson Institute webcast. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”
The wrangling over the decades-old arms control regime comes as much of the world’s attention is focused instead on the coronavirus pandemic, which Democrats have accused Trump of using as a cover to withdraw from Open Skies with little attention.
“The president should be focused on combating the coronavirus, not dragging America toward a costly and potentially devastating nuclear arms race,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement on Trump’s move to pull out of Open Skies.
Engel also argued the “surveillance flights conducted under the treaty are critical to augmenting the New START Treaty and other arms control measures.”
New START caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 a piece, and it places limits on deploying weapons that can deliver the warheads and creates a verification regime that includes 18 on-site inspections per year.
The agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, is set to expire Feb. 5, 2021. But the treaty includes an option to extend it for another five years without needing the approval of either country’s legislature.
Arms control advocates have sounded the alarm about the future of New START since last year after Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a pact that banned Russia and the United States from having ground-launched missiles of a certain range.
Now, those warnings are intensifying.
In a statement opposing Trump’s Open Skies withdrawal, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also highlighted “the uncertainty surrounding its commitment to New START,” calling the combination of both “very alarming.”
The Open Skies Treaty, which was first proposed by former President Eisenhower but didn’t enter into force until 2002, allows its more than 30 signatories, including the U.S. and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over each other. The intention is to provide transparency about military activities to avoid miscalculations that could lead to war.
The Trump administration formally submitted its notice of intent to withdraw Friday, kicking off a six-month period before the withdrawal is final. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States could reverse its withdrawal “should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”
Defense hawks have urged Trump to leave the agreement for months, citing Russian violations such as restrictions on flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Supporters of staying in the agreement do not dispute Russia’s flight restrictions are troubling, but argue the issue can be addressed within the confines of the treaty and that the accord remains in U.S. national security interests.
The same day Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from Open Skies, special envoy Billingslea announced progress on formal talks with Moscow on New START. In his Hudson Institute appearance, Billingslea said he and his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, have agreed to hold in-person talks when the pandemic subsides.
“We have concrete ideas for our next interaction, and we’re finalizing the details as we speak,” Billingslea said. “We’ve settled on a venue, and we’re working on an agenda based on the exchange of views that has taken place.”
In a separate call with reporters about Open Skies, Billingslea said he would not “foreshadow what we may or may not do” on New START, but said “all options remain on the table.” One reported option is for a shorter, one- or two-year extension to buy time to negotiate the more comprehensive agreement the White House wants.
The Trump administration wants a new agreement to include China, as well as several new Russian weapons systems.
China, which has far fewer known warheads than Russia or the United States, has repeatedly rejected joining arms control talks. But Billingslea said he expects Russia to bring China to the table.
“Beijing, like Moscow, is intent on building up its nuclear forces and using those forces to try to intimidate the United States and our friends and our allies,” Billingslea said during the Hudson Institute event. “If China wants to be a great power — and we know it has that self image — it needs to behave like one. It must demonstrate the will and the ability to reverse its destabilizing nuclear buildup, and it should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally.”
Russia, meanwhile, has previously offered to extend the treaty immediately without any preconditions and has also recently expressed a willingness to include some of the new weapons Washington is concerned about.
But on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from Open Skies, Ryabkov on Friday cast doubt on New START’s extension.
“I personally assess the chances that [New START] will be effective after February 5, 2021, as not very high,” Ryabkov said in an online discussion, according to a translation from Financial Times.
Derek Johnson, executive director of Global Zero, which advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, argued Trump’s move on Open Skies “does not bode well for New START.”
“Rather than accept Russia’s offer to extend New START immediately and without preconditions, the Trump administration has proposed instead to negotiate a new trilateral agreement that includes China. Without extending New START, this proposal is either a fool’s errand or a deliberate farce,” Johnson said in a statement. “Getting China’s nuclear forces under control is a worthy goal, and sustained efforts are required to do that — but if New START goes the way of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies Treaties, the possibility of a bigger deal goes with it.”