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Heightening Risk of Accidental Nuclear War, Russia Follows Trump's Lead and Withdraws From Open Skies Treaty

Moscow is reportedly willing to reverse its decision to pull out if the U.S. rejoins the pact credited with helping to prevent nuclear war.

An inflatable nuclear missile balloon stands at the ready before Global Zero's rally to eliminate nuclear weapons begins in McPherson Square on April 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

An inflatable nuclear missile balloon stands at the ready before Global Zero's rally to eliminate nuclear weapons begins in McPherson Square on April 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a development that experts say increases the risks of military confrontation, Russia announced Friday that it will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an international pact credited with helping to prevent nuclear war since it came into force in 2002.

Russia's withdrawal from the treaty—which allows more than 30 party states to conduct unarmed observation flights over military facilities in each other's territories—follows U.S. President Donald Trump's decision last year to ditch the pact.

"Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty last year 'significantly upended the balance of interests of signatory states,' adding that Moscow's proposals to keep the treaty alive after the U.S. exit have been cold-shouldered by Washington's allies," The Associated Press reported Friday.

Russia is now taking the requisite steps to pull out of the pact "due to the lack of progress in removing the obstacles for the treaty's functioning in the new conditions," said the country's foreign ministry. A formal exit from the treaty now depends on the outcome of a vote in the Russian parliament.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first declared Washington's intention to leave the pact last May, citing alleged Russian violations. As Common Dreams reported at the time, nuclear experts, anti-war activists, and policymakers from around the world denounced the Trump administration's move as reckless.

As John Tierney, a former Democratic congressman who now serves as executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said in a May statement: "The Open Skies Treaty has built trust, provided stability, and eased tensions between the United States, Russia, and 32 other countries across the Euro-Atlantic region. The transparency it provides has helped prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings that could have otherwise led to conflict."

Global Zero, an international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, called Trump's May decision dangerous, saying it "greatly increases the risk of accidental or unintended conflict that could escalate, perhaps even to the nuclear level." Win Without War added to the chorus, warning at the time that abandoning the pact "puts us further down the path of nuclear brinkmanship" and "brings us one step closer to nuclear disaster."

After a lengthy withdrawal process, the U.S. exit from the treaty was finalized six months later, on November 21. Russia has denied breaching the treaty, while foreign heads of state have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to persuade both countries to recommit to the deal.

As AP reported:

The European Union has urged the U.S. to reconsider and called on Russia to stay in the pact and lift flight restrictions, notably over its westernmost Kaliningrad region, which lies between NATO allies Lithuania and Poland.

Russia has argued that the limits on flights over Kaliningrad, which hosts sizable military forces, are permissible under the treaty's terms, noting that the U.S. has imposed more sweeping restrictions on observation flights over Alaska.

As a condition for staying in the pact after the U.S. pullout, Moscow sought guarantees from NATO allies that they wouldn't transfer the data collected during their observation flights over Russia to the U.S., but was unsuccessful.

"Moscow has warned that the U.S. withdrawal will erode global security by making it more difficult for governments to interpret the intentions of other nations, particularly amid Russia-West tensions after the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014," AP noted.

Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said Friday that Russia is willing to reverse its decision to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty if the U.S. rejoins the agreement, the news outlet reported.

Following U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's win in the 2020 election, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said that Trump's withdrawal from the pact was just "another example of his failed go-it-alone foreign policy" that left the world a more dangerous place.

"The Trump doctrine of alienating our friends, withdrawing from agreements like the Iran deal and the Paris accord, and weakening our alliances makes America less safe," Beyer said at the time.

The congressman added that he hoped Biden would "be able to heal much of the damage Trump has done" and said: "In the meantime, I'm working to build support in Congress for diplomatic reengagement, including rejoining the Open Skies Treaty."

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