U.S Department of State
Marshall Billingslea, Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control
Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
May 21, 2020
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Thanks very much, Morgan. My name is Chris Ford, as Morgan indicated, and I am the assistant secretary here at the department for international security and nonproliferation, and currently fulfilling the duties of the under secretary for arms control and international security.
So good afternoon. Thanks for giving us the chance to talk with you for a few minutes. As you will have just heard, the President has in fact decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty. And what I’d like to do is briefly outline the reasons that led the U.S. Government to that decision.
This is the culmination of a months-long review process, for quite a few months now – I think it’s eight months or so – that involved close and nearly continuous discussions and consultations with our allies and our partners in the Open Skies Treaty. We solicited their views, their input on multiple occasions, including even in the form of a written questionnaire that we sent them in order to make sure that the fullest possible range of issues were raised and that they had the chance to air any concerns they might have. I can assure all of you that they were not shy about providing us with input, and we are very grateful for the time and effort that so many of them took in providing us with their thoughts over the course of these consultations.
After digesting all this input, the U.S. however has reached the decision that it is no longer in the U.S. national interest to continue participating in the treaty. And if I might, the reasons for this fall roughly into a few baskets, if you will. First of all, we need to view Russian – Russia’s behavior on the Open Skies Treaty in a broader context in which Russia is clearly no longer committed to cooperative security in the way that one had hoped that it would have been. Russia’s violation of the Open Skies Treaty is just one instance in a pattern of Russian violations of its arms control nonproliferation and disarmament obligations and commitments that affect European security and affect the arms control architecture. This, of course, includes things such as its violation of the arms control treaty, which of course destroyed that treaty; its actions against Georgia and Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea, which have been contrary principles set forth in the Helsinki Final Act; its purported suspension – which isn’t really a legal thing, but the word that the Russians use – of its obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and its selective implementation of the Vienna Document.
So this security environment is very much in contrast to the sort of environment that the treaty intended to be a part of – the treaty, when it was negotiated and when it entered into force. And this has been a source of great concern. Russians across the board are responsible for creating that situation, but this is not the world into which the Open Skies Treaty was birthed.
So the second bundle of concerns have to do with Russia’s ongoing violations of the Open Skies Treaty, which we’ve been documenting in the State Department’s compliance reports essentially from the very outset. Findings of noncompliance first appeared in 2005 with our State Department report, which was the first such report since the Open Skies entered into force in 2002. So from the outset of the treaty, Russia has failed properly to provide airspace and airfield information, which is inconsistent with treaty obligations, and it’s been steadily documented ever since that a series of shifting violations of the treaty have simply kept occurring. They – a series of reports from 2004 through 2008, information reports from 2014 through 2019, all these have detailed various illegal Russian restrictions on oversights – on overflights, I should say, and other problems with treaty implementation. This has included airspace restrictions without justification, improper claims of force majeure, limits on flights over places such as Chechnya, and of course, most recently, as we have detailed publicly in the executive summary of our most recent compliance report, Open Skies problems persisted through 2019 in the form of an illegal sub-limit for flights over the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, restriction of flights along the Georgia border, and also restriction of – denial of flights over a military exercise called Center which took place in September of 2019.
Now, those of you who know the history of Open Skies will know that this is an idea that came originally from President Dwight Eisenhower back in 1957, who had the vision of a confidence-building regime in which each superpower – then in the Cold War – could demonstrate to the other that it had nothing to fear because no area was off limits to peaceful image collecting flights. And that of course all made sense as a theory, and the message intended was you can fly anywhere you like and look at anything you want at any time. And if indeed that had been the message that Russia had been sending all these years, that would probably indeed have promoted confidence and trust and helped Europe be a more peaceful place.
The problem is that’s not the message that Russia has been sending. What it has been saying is yes, you can fly anywhere you want and look at anything you like at any time except for the things we don’t wish you to see. And that kind of selective limitation clearly cuts at the heart of the confidence-building that is the purpose of the Open Skies Treaty.
So the third bundle of concerns relates to how Russia has used the treaty essentially as a propaganda tool. The Kremlin injects into its implementation of the treaty propaganda statements, in effect, in support of Putin’s policy of regional aggressive conduct – for example, by falsely claiming that the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are so-called independent countries. That’s the reason, actually, that Russia says it has been violating – well, it doesn’t say it’s been violating – the reason for Russia’s violations of the Open Skies Treaty with respect to the Georgia border are rooted in its claim that these two countries which it seized from Georgia by force in 2008 are in fact independent. So that clearly undermines confidence and undercuts the peace-building purposes of the treaty in very dangerous and problematic ways.
Russia has also used airfield designations in support of its propaganda narratives that Crimea is in fact part of the Russian Federation. After having seized that territory and purportedly annexed it, Russia has been trying to use Open Skies airfield designation to get de facto admissions from other countries that in fact Crimea is part of Russia. And that, while not a violation of the treaty, is clearly deeply problematic and profoundly undercuts the kind of confidence that we had all hoped to get from the Open Skies mechanism.
So these kinds of moves are deeply offensive and undermine trust in Russia’s good faith. It’s improper to use a treaty, we think, as a political weapon to advance propaganda about regional aggression like that, and we think this is sort of a perversion, in effect, of the purposes of the treaty.
The fourth and final concern that I want to recount to you all today is actually more concrete, and that is that Russia may be using imagery that is collected from Open Skies flights to support its new doctrine of targeting U.S. – and, I should add, European – critical infrastructure targets with conventionally armed precision-guided missiles. Now, it’s not a violation of the treaty to collect imagery of civilian infrastructure, of course, but if a state party turns around and uses that imagery to support offensive military targeting, clearly that is nonetheless problematic and represents a way in which Russia has been very deliberately trying to twist the treaty in ways that are very much not conducive to our security interests or those of other partners in the treaty itself.
So for all these reasons, we are – we’re – clearly been very unhappy with how Russia has been misusing and manipulating the treaty and of course violating it pretty much from the very beginning. And this has all contributed to the President’s decision that it is no longer in our interest to remain in the treaty, and for that reason, we will be notifying the treaty depositories pursuant to Article 15 that it is the United States intent to withdraw. That will in turn start a six-month clock, at the end of which the United States will no longer be a participant in Open Skies.
Now, it is also true, as you may have heard from President Trump at the White House just about an hour or so ago, that the United States might be willing to revisit this if Russia returns to full compliance, but that is a decision for Russia to make, and we’ll have that conversation in the event that they choose to do that. So that’s the basic news today, and I think I’ll turn it back over to Marshall and to Morgan for further gloss on today’s events and putting it all into context of our broader arms control agenda.
MR BILLINGSLEA: Thanks, Dr. Ford. This is Marshall Billingslea. I’m the ambassador and the President’s special envoy for arms control. I’ll build off of what our assistant secretary just said regarding the specifics of Open Skies to re-emphasize some key points here.
First is that, as Chris has laid out, Russia has systematically destroyed conventional arms control in Europe. They abandoned the CFE Treaty, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which put real limits on things like tanks and armored personnel carriers in the region east of the Urals. They did that – they abandoned that treaty despite the fact that the thing was renegotiated to accommodate Russia, which is remarkable.
The Open Skies Treaty violations you just heard. The failure to implement the Vienna document notification requirements fully – obviously, the egregious and flagrant violation of the UN Charter itself as well as the Helsinki Final Act with their attempted annexation of Crimea and their invasion of Ukraine.
But actually, this fits into a larger pattern of systematic damage conducted by Russia against the international arms control architecture, both bilateral and multilateral. Who can forget the use of the deadly Novichok nerve agent, a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention? The INF Treaty – destruction of the INF Treaty by Russia clandestinely developing and ultimately fielding a medium-range nuclear-tipped cruise missile in direction contravention of its promises under that treaty.
There is here, I think, three important points as we look forward to the future of arms control globally and with Russia. The first is that the President has made crystal-clear today that the United States expects that our treaty partners behave in a responsible fashion. We have every right, when we enter into a contract, which is precisely what a treaty is, that the other contracting parties will do what they commit to do, and that we will hold them to account, and that there will be consequences if parties violate or fail to implement their promises and their commitments and their obligations. One consequence, as you have seen today, is that we reserve the legal authority, which is codified in all of these agreements, that if the other party is not holding up their end of the bargain, we do have the right to withdraw from the arrangement.
But also equally important is providing ourselves a degree of assurance when we really begin to question or have a lack of trust in our partners that they will follow through and that they will do what they promise. Then we need to have strong verification and compliance mechanisms in these treaties, and that’s precisely where we’re headed with the future of nuclear arms control.
As you will hear in a televised event at the Hudson Institute here in about 40 minutes, I will be announcing that we are on the cusp of relaunching and restarting arms control negotiations with the Russians – and our expectation is that the Chinese will likewise be at the table – to develop the future of nuclear arms control, a trilateral arms control agreement that addresses a worrisome cycle that we see emerging with respect to an arms buildup both on the part of the Russians, but particularly on the part of the Chinese.
You should expect, given today’s events and given the kinds of concerns that you’ve heard laid out here today, that verification and compliance will feature prominently in our thinking and in our negotiations going forward. But we do believe there is a path ahead. We are very eager to begin discussions with the Russians and with the Chinese. And to that end, my counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov and I have had a strong conversation, a lengthy conversation setting the stage for the kinds of topics that will be discussed and agreeing that we will meet in person, in Europe, with our delegations as soon as the pandemic recedes to a point at which we can make that happen.
In the meantime, electronic forms of communication are underway, the venue has been selected, the agenda is under development, and I am pleased that in the very near term, you will see that the United States drives forward a modernization of nuclear arms control.