WASHINGTON — The United States appears unlikely to rejoin the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty over its concerns about Russian noncompliance, with the Biden administration telling international partners in a recent diplomatic memo obtained by Defense News that doing so would send the “wrong message” to Russia.
The note, sent days before the U.S. Air Force confirmed plans to retire the aging aircraft used to fulfill the mutual surveillance pact, may signal the end of hopes that the U.S. will rejoin the agreement.
Though President Joe Biden, as president-elect, condemned then-President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the treaty, Russia has since pulled out, and the Senate’s 50-50 split presents an uphill fight to re-ratify the agreement.
The State Department said in a statement Monday that a final decision has not been made. However, in a March 31 demarche, it told multiple partners that the administration is “frankly concerned that agreeing to rejoin a treaty that Russia continues to violate would send the wrong message to Russia and undermine our position on the broader arms control agenda.”
Other countries signed onto the Open Skies Treaty, including prominent NATO allies, pushed for the U.S. to remain as a participant, arguing the pact serves as a valuable channel for transparency and dialogue between Russia and the United States, the world’s top two nuclear powers. The letter acknowledged the issue came up at a Feb. 25 NATO event, as well as in private conversations.
“While we recognize that Russia’s Open Skies violations are not of the same magnitude as its material breach of the INF Treaty, they are part of a pattern of Russian disregard for international commitments — in arms control and beyond — that raises questions about Russia’s readiness to participate cooperatively in a confidence-building regime,” the demarche read, referring to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The Biden administration did not spell out its noncompliance concerns in the letter, but the Trump administration quarreled with Moscow over what cameras were being equipped on Russian overflights; it also accused Russia of restricting flights over Kaliningrad and using Open Skies to surveil the Trump golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, something open-source experts have questioned.