FILE - In this June 28, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk to participate in a group photo at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. The Trump administration is notifying international partners that it is pulling out of a treaty that permits 30-plus nations to conduct unarmed, observation flights over each other's territory - overflights set up decades ago to promote trust and avert conflict. The administration says it wants out of the Open Skies Treaty because Russia is violating the pact and imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo, File)

U.S. withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty ‘serious’ challenge for Canada: expert

Washington’s pending withdrawal from a confidence-building international treaty that permits member nations to conduct observation flights over each other’s territory is going to present Canada with a difficult strategic challenge, according to one Canadian defence expert.

Rob Huebert, who teaches political science at the University of Calgary, says the Trudeau government could be faced with an awkward choice between sticking to Canada’s decades-long policy of supporting international arms control treaties or running the risk of looking “just like a toady to the United States” by following the Washington’s lead and withdrawing from the accord.

Huebert said the Open Skies Treaty, which was signed in 1992 and came into effect in 2002, permits each of its 34 state-parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Canada is one of the original signatories to the treaty, which gives it the right to conduct two reconnaissance flights a year over Russia — and the obligation to allow two Russian flights over Canadian territory annually.

“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 U.S. plans to pull out in six months. The White House also says that imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites.

‘[A] very serious political challenge’

“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 Canada views the Open Skies Treaty as a key component of global arms control.

“We understand and share many of the U.S. 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.”

Canada will consult with other state parties to determine the impact of the Trump administration’s announcement on the treaty’s continued implementation, Khoury added.

Trump hinted Thursday “there’s a very good chance” that he’ll come to a new agreement with Russia, if Moscow 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.

‘Everything changes’
A Russian Air Force Tu-214 flies over Offutt Air Force Base, Friday, April 26, 2019, in Omaha, Neb. The flight is allowed as part of the Open Skies Treaty. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

Huebert said the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty must be seen in the broader context of a new American strategic doctrine and the Trump administration’s moves to withdraw from 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.”

While Trump’s assertion that Russia is cheating on its obligations under the treaty is correct — particularly when it comes to allowing overflights of breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — few Canadian experts agree that it’s something worth destroying the entire treaty over, Huebert said.

“But obviously Trump has shown very little inclination to try and fix any multilateral organization,” Huebert said. “This is part of the philosophy ‘America First.’ And that goes to the defence and the use of nuclear weapons, and all that entails.”

‘An ultimatum’

Russia decried the U.S. withdrawal as “a deplorable development for European security.”

Moscow sees Washington’s move “as an ultimatum rather than a foundation for discussion,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

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

Russia has denied U.S. accusations of non-compliance and said it too had questions about the U.S. compliance but prefers to resolve these issues within the mechanisms provided by 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.

With files from The Associated Press

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