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It's unknown what Donald Trump's motivation is, as by this point it seems that none of the moves he makes are for the good of the country. Most seem self-serving. So there must be some other motivation in his decision to pull the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, which has been in play for three decades, other than the Trump administration's complaint that Russia is not compliant.
The treaty was originally put into play to allow mutual reconnaissance flights between the 34 countries in the agreement. The goal is to reduce the chances of an accidental war.
Before flying to Michigan on Thursday, Trump spoke on the White House lawn and said the U.S. was leaving the pact because Russia had been in violation of it. "Until they adhere," he said, "we will pull out."
The Pentagon said in the statement that the Trump administration would be issuing a formal notification Friday. The exit wouldn't happen immediately, as there is a six-month window between the announcement and when it will finally take place. This means it will go into effect just after the presidential election.
This is not the first pact with Russia that the Trump administration has pulled out of. A 1987 agreement over intermediate-range missiles was abandoned with claims of violations by Moscow.
More famously, Trump also pulled out of a 2015 multi-nation nuclear agreement with Iran that has caused nothing but trouble. The reason for leaving that agreement was claims that Iran wasn't holding its end of the bargain.
The George W. Bush administration abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2002, and this led to U.S. missile defense buildup in Europe. The Trump administration pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia last year, again citing violations on the part of Russia.
This leaves the New START pact as the only remaining arms-control agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed that agreement. It puts limits on strategic nuclear platforms. This includes bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It's scheduled to expire in February but can be extended for five years without ratification and if the presidents of both countries agree.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has indicated he would like to extend the START pact, but the Trump administration hasn't been as willing. They have described it as outdated and have said it doesn't have proper oversight.
However, what the Trump administration is angling for is a follow-up agreement with China and Russia. China has so far resisted talks. If it is not extended or renegotiated, there will be, for the first time since 1972, a return to not having legally-binding or verifiable limits on the two biggest nuclear powers.
There's a risk of forcing another divide between the U.S. and European allies with the exit from the Open Skies treaty. Some allies have urged the U.S. to remain in the agreement regardless of the concerns of Russia not being compliant.
Assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, Christopher A. Ford, said on Thursday that Russia had violated the agreement by restricting flights over the southern Chechnya region, the exclave of Kaliningrad, and along the southern border with Georgia. He also said Russia had denied flights over a military exercise last September.
"It's really regrettable what Russia has done to international arms control," said Trump's new special representative for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, at a Hudson Institute appearance on Thursday. "They really have systematically violated nearly every agreement that they have made — political or legally binding."
Russia, of course, denies it has been in violation of the treaty and criticized the decision to pull out as the administration's latest reckless move to dismantle arms control agreements.
"Unfortunately, this is not the first blow to international stability and security being inflicted by the U.S. administration," said Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, on a state-run channel.
Open Skies was initially devised as a proposal from the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He proposed it to the Soviets to promote transparency of military surveillance overflights.
While the Soviet Union rejected the offer, the late President George H.W. Bush brought it back, leading to the pact being signed in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. The 20th nation ratified it in 2002, putting the agreement into effect.
Thirty-four countries are included in the treaty today. Each is allowed to conduct reconnaissance flights over the territory of the others. This can be done with short notice with the goal being to obtain information about military activities.
Before the announcement was made on Thursday, European allies were briefed during meetings with Pentagon and State Department officials. Some were told that the U.S. may salvage the treaty if there is a change in behavior with the Russians.
It adds up to difficult relations between Washington and Moscow. The U.S. did not look favorably on Russia invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea in 2014, and there has been much discussion, debate, and criminal and legal activity surrounding Russia interfering in the 2016 election. Trump has taken a lot of heat for his relationship with Putin.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has pushed the Trump administration to leave the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as well as Open Skies. The former has not yet been enforced.
"Like so many treaties with Russia, the Open Skies agreement was negotiated and signed with good intentions, then abused by Moscow for maximum advantage," he wrote in an op-ed late last year. He believes the pact is giving Russia spying abilities that it wouldn't have overwise and that the U.S. doesn't get any intelligence that isn't already available.
He praised the administration for its move on Thursday, but some elder GOP criticized the decision to abandon the treaty. This includes senior intelligence official Gen. Michael V. Hayden from the George W. Bush administration, who has also served as CIA director. "This is insane," he tweeted.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the decision as reckless, noting that Congress mandated that the administration give it a review period before withdrawing from the treaty.
"The timing of the Trump administration's decision to withdraw is clearly tied to the political calendar," said Menendez in a statement. "By rushing this abrupt withdrawal, it is clear the Trump administration is attempting to bind a future administration from participation in this longstanding and valuable treaty for our nation."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov opined last month that the Trump administration is averse to any limits on its military. He doubted other countries would follow suit and withdrew as well.
"Europeans seem to me to understand that the agreement has added value as an instrument of trust, an instrument of predictability, transparency, and that is how we see it."
Trump's envoy said the U.S. won't hesitate to enter into a costly nuclear arms race with Russia and China. He added he'd agreed with top Russian arms control officials on when they would begin negotiations on a new agreement and that he was urging China to agree to this as well.
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