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article imageRussia says leaving Open Skies military treaty

By Anastasia CLARK (AFP)     Jan 15, 2021 in World

Russia on Friday said it was withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, undermining a post-Cold War defence accord that allows its signatories to carry out unarmed surveillance flights over each other's territories.

Citing "lack of progress" on maintaining the functioning of the treaty after the United States withdrew from it last year, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement it was beginning "domestic procedures for the Russian Federation's withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty."

The agreement was signed soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 and came into force in 2002.

It allowed its nearly three dozen signatories to carry out short-notice flights over one another's territory to monitor potential military operations.

Members include countries across Europe, the former Soviet Union and Canada.

Last year Washington announced it would be leaving the treaty after accusing Russia of violations, including blocking flights over certain sites and forbidding surveys of military exercises.

The Russian foreign ministry said Friday that the United States had used a "fictitious pretext" for its withdrawal and had disturbed "the balance of interests of the participating states".

The ministry said Russia had put forward proposals to retain the "viability" of the agreement but did not receive support from Washington.

The pact allows its members to request copies of images taken during surveillance flights carried out by other members.

The country under surveillance is given 72-hours' warning ahead of a flight and 24-hours' notice of the flight path, to which it can suggest modifications.

- 'Unfortunate scenario' -

Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house, said Moscow's decision to leave Open Skies was "predictable" as the other member states did not fulfil its terms.

In a post on Facebook on Friday, the lawmaker said Russia requested the remaining signatories to confirm that they would not transfer information obtained under the Open Skies agreement to Washington.

The United States, like many Open Skies treaty members, is part of the NATO alliance.

"The blame for what is happening -- and this is a very unfortunate scenario -- is entirely on the United States and NATO allies," Kosachyov wrote.

While Moscow and Washington have frequently accused each other of violations, NATO argued for the preservation of the accord.

On Friday, the alliance's deputy spokesman Piers Cazalet said Russia's "selective implementation" of its Open Skies duties had for a while undermined the treaty's contributions to regional security.

"All NATO Allies remain committed to effective international arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation –- which are essential for our security," Cazalet said in a statement.

- Weakening arms control -

The Open Skies pact is one of three major treaties Washington abandoned under the adminstration of outgoing President Donald Trump.

In 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran deal, which curbed Tehran's nuclear programme in return for an easing of international sanctions.

Iran suspended several of its own commitments under the 2015 deal in retaliation.

Washington also pulled out from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, further straining already tense relations between Moscow and Washington that in recent years have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

With President-elect Joe Biden due to step into office next week, one of the first challenges he will face in bilateral relations with Russia is negotiations over the extension of the New START treaty.

The accord, which is Washington's last remaining arms reduction pact with Moscow, is set to expire on February 5.

As for Open Skies, the Russian foreign ministry does not expect a Biden administration to usher the United States back into the treaty, the head of its arms control unit, Vladimir Yermakov, said Friday.

"You see what policy the United States has now -- diametrical opposition to any agreements on arms control," state news agency TASS quoted him as saying.

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