Canadian News May 26, 2020 1:43 PM EST

US withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty presents difficult decision for Canada

Washington's potential withdrawal from a so-called confidence-building international treaty that allows member nations to conduct observation flights over each other's territory is set to present Canada with a difficult strategic challenge, according to one Canadian defense expert.

US withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty presents difficult decision for Canada
Collin Jones The Post Millennial
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Washington's potential withdrawal from a so-called confidence-building international treaty that allows member nations to conduct observation flights over each other's territory is set to present Canada with a difficult strategic challenge, according to one Canadian defense expert.

Rob Huebert, who currently teaches political science at the University of Calgary, told CBC that the Trudeau's government is facing an awkward situation between sticking to Canada's decades-long policy of supporting international arms control treaties and looking "like a toady to the United States" by following Washington's lead and withdrawing completely from the Open Skies Treaty.

The treaty, which was signed in 1992 and came into effect in 2002, allows for each of the 34 treaty members to conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the entire territories of other treaty members in order to collect data on military forces and activities.

In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed reconnaissance flights between the US and Moscow, but Moscow declined after it surmised that the flights would be used for spying.

Canada was one of the first to sign the treaty, which allows it the right to conduct two reconnaissance flights per annum over Russia—which allows Russian flights to do the same over Canadian territory.

"It's a form of verification. You don't have to necessarily like someone or trust someone, but you can see for yourself if they're doing what they say they're going to do," Huebert said.

Claiming that Russia is violating the pact, the Trump administration informed other members of the treaty last Thursday that the US plans to pull out of the agreement within six months. The White House added that imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly and a cheaper cost using US or commercial satellites.

"If the Russians pull out, then we'd sidestep one potentially very serious political challenge with our American neighbours," Huebert said.

"But if the Russians decide to stay in the treaty, then it means we either have to say yes, we're in the treaty and Russians and us, we can still have the overflights, and that means flying over the Canadian part of North America. One could imagine what the Americans' response to that will be."

Syrine Khoury, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, said that Canada views the Open Skies Treaty as a key tool in global arms control.

"We understand and share many of the US concerns regarding Russian non-compliance with the Open Skies Treaty," Khoury told Radio Canada International.

"Nonetheless, we continue to believe that if Russia returns to full compliance, the treaty could continue to serve as an important tool for promoting military transparency, building mutual confidence and reducing misunderstandings."

Khoury added that Canada will consult with other state parties to decide the precise impact of the Trump administration's announcement on the treaty's continuation.

Trump qualified the threat to exit the agreement by saying that "there's a very good chance" he would come to a new agreement if Russia adheres to the treaty.

"So I think what's going to happen is we're going to pull out and they (the Russians) are going to come back and want to make a deal," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Huebert said that a US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty must be seen in the context of a unique American strategic doctrine and the Trump administration's broader moves to withdraw from any kind of arms control treaties.

"If one starts reading the latest American strategic policies—they're now, for example, putting low-yield nuclear weapons on their ballistic missile submarines—it's almost as if the Americans are going towards a greater possibility of a nuclear warfighting environment," Huebert said.

"If that's true, everything changes."

Russia condemned the US withdrawal as "a deplorable development for European security."

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Washington's move is perceived "as an ultimatum rather than a foundation for discussion."

"That said, Moscow was not surprised by Washington's decision, which characterizes its approach to discarding the entire package of arms control agreements and trust-building measures in the military sphere," the Russian statement continued.

Russian has consistently denied accusations by the US of non-compliance and said it has questions it would like to ask US, but prefers to approach and resolve the issues within the mechanisms built into the treaty.

"Russia's policy on the treaty will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners," the ministry said.

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