ANALYSIS - Open Skies Treaty Could Still Be Saved If Biden Administration Reverses Withdrawal

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ANALYSIS - Open Skies Treaty Could Still Be Saved If Biden Administration Reverses Withdrawal

MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 16th January, 2021) Chances are the Treaty on Open Skies, which enables its signatories to exchange unarmed military surveillance flights, can still be saved after Russia's withdrawal if the United States returns to the deal under Joe Biden's presidency, experts told Sputnik.

Earlier in the day, Russia announced launching a withdrawal procedure from the 1992 treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it made no sense to remain part of Open Skies when the United States officially closed its airspace to Russian inspections, while other signatories made no effort to address neither Moscow's concerns nor its proposals for preserving the deal on mutually-acceptable terms.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump initiated his country's withdrawal from the treaty last July, citing alleged violations by Russia, despite criticism abroad and at home, including by Joe Biden. The United States formally stopped being an Open Skies party in November.

With 35 signatories at its peak, the Open Skies treaty (OST) was commonly believed to be a tool for deescalating tensions and building trust between Russia and the collective West, primarily the United States and other NATO members, by committing each to let other parties conduct unarmed surveillance flights over their territory to monitor military activities.

OPEN SKIES MAKES NO SENSE WITHOUT RUSSIA, US

Experts were unanimous in that the treaty makes no sense without both Russia and the United States in it.

"If the treaty was barely on life support before, this [Russia's withdrawal] is essentially pulling the plug. Unless the new Biden administration and the Russian government work quickly to fund some means to restore it, it will be truly dead soon," Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the Washington DC office of the Middlebury Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Sputnik.

"Without both US and Russia, [the treaty] loses almost the entire purpose and reason for existence," Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, told Sputnik.

Pointing out that the majority of Russian flights under the treaty are over Europe, same as practically all European flights are over Russia, the expert argued that "without Russia, the treaty is as good as dead."

"There will be only one reason to keep it in case of Russian withdrawal - hope that eventually both the United States and Russia return, which is not impossible, although very difficult," Sokov said.

Although it might take time to return Russia and the United States to the treaty, there are no visible obstacles to that, according to M. V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the school of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.

RUSSIA'S WITHDRAWAL ANNOUNCEMENT INTENDED AT U.S.

"If the US returns, Russia will return, too. At the moment, however, the main task is to keep Russia in the treaty and for that, European NATO members need to produce a positive response to Russian conditions - perhaps not accept 100 percent, but engage in a serious conversation and see whether a compromise that will satisfy Russia is possible," Sokov said.

After the United States' withdrawal, Russia put forward several conditions which it said would make remaining member to the treaty acceptable for it. Two principal conditions are that first, European members commit to not sharing the data collected during OST flights over Russian military infrastructure with the United States, and secondly, that Russia is allowed to fly over US military infrastructure in Europe.

"In my opinion, no legal action - even the full adoption of Russian conditions - can prevent NATO countries from sharing intelligence from OST flights with the US, this must be understood clearly and this also means that even the current Russian conditions are already a compromise," Sokov opined.

According to the expert, while the intention behind Russia's withdrawal announcement appeared clear namely, to "increase pressure on state parties to OST so that they meet Russian conditions for remaining in the treaty," the European signatories might actually choose to not act at all, which the expert said would be "counterproductive and short-sighted."

Another factor to consider is that Europe has its own, non-NATO related, interests in its relations with both the United States and Russia.

"I assume other governments will appeal to both countries to return to the treaty, but they too will have many other priorities when it comes to steps they would like from the US and Russia and particularly from the new US administration," James Martin Center's Pomper said.

"The only reliable way to fully restore OST is to have US return," Vienna Center's Sokov said.

BIDEN MIGHT RETURN US TO OPEN SKIES

"I imagine that Russia's actions [announcement of withdrawal] are a combination of standard bureaucratic action that has been triggered by the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty and an attempt to put pressure on the incoming Biden administration to start negotiations on various matters of international security and arms control soon. I would argue that its first priority will be, and should be, the New START treaty that is up for renewal in early February 2021," Liu Institute's Ramana said.

Pomper, too, believes that the extension of New START is going to be Biden administration's top arms control priority. The treaty is the last remaining one that puts constraints on armaments limits of the two countries that possess the world's largest nuclear stockpiles.

This, together with "many other urgent issues-both domestic and foreign," make Washington's return to Open Skies during Biden's term "possible but ... difficult," the James Martin Center senior fellow said.

Agreeing that Biden's administration would likely initiate a broad range of negotiations, "to undo some of the damage done by the Trump administration," Ramana noted that it was hard to predict if Open Skies was going to be among priority items.

"The Biden administration may want to return it appears supportive of OST and critical of Trump's withdrawal. This is not easy, however. OST is a treaty, and once the US withdraws, it will probably need to sign it again and go through the ratification procedure. Signing is not that difficult - and perhaps would be sufficient for Russia to put its withdrawal on hold or recall it," Sokov said.