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President Trump said Thursday he will begin withdrawing from a key post-Cold War agreement with Russia and more than 30 other nations. The Open Skies Treaty allows regulated overflights of Russia, the U.S. and Europe by Russian and American planes to ensure no military action is in the process of launching. Nick Schifrin talks to Marshall Billingslea, presidential special envoy for arms control.
The president signaled today that he would begin the process of withdrawing from a key post-Cold War treaty with Russia and more than 30 other nations.
Nick Schifrin has that.
Judy, the 1992 Open Skies Treaty was built amid the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.
It was designed to allow regulated overflights of Russia, the U.S., and Europe by Russian and American planes to ensure no military action was in the process of being launched below.
But the administration says the Russians have routinely violated the pact, and started a six-month clock today. At the same time, the U.S. is trying to include China in new conversations about New START, the nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia.
And for more, I'm joined by Marshall Billingslea, the newly appointed presidential envoy for arms control.
Ambassador Billingslea, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.
Let's just start with a straightforward question. Why is the Trump administration withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty?
Ambassador Marshall Billingslea:
Well, thanks for that question, Nick.
And I'll tell you, there are four specific reasons that we're exercising our right under the treaty to withdraw.
The first is that Russia, regrettably, has engaged in a systemic pattern of arms control treaty violations. They have basically destroyed the entire conventional arms control framework in Europe, not just with the Open Skies Treaty, but with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty and many other destabilizing behaviors.
Secondly, Russia is misusing the treaty for purposes that it really was never intended for. As our director of national intelligence said today, and as the head of our counterintelligence executive has said, Russia was actually abusing the treaty to target our critical infrastructure.
On top of that, reason number three is that Russia was using the treaty to advance its malign propaganda activities around the world. They were trying to get countries to de facto recognize their illegal annexation effort in Crimea and their occupation of Georgia. These are unacceptable behaviors.
And then, finally, as we reviewed the treaty, the honest answer is that technology has passed by the world of wet film and antiquated aircraft. You can download commercial imagery today in a matter of seconds that really meets the original intent of confidence-building measures in Europe.
So, we will — we will work with our allies on this, but Russia's behavior has been really regrettable.
All right, so, obviously, the main argument is that Russia has not been complying with this treaty.
Yes, Russia has set constraints, according to the experts that I'm speaking to, and also really blocked some of the conversations about some of those constraints, as the U.S. has seen it.
But the Trump administration has been making progress. Russia recently allowed an overflight in Kaliningrad, the enclave in Eastern Europe. Why withdraw from the treaty, rather than continue that progress the Trump administration's been making?
Well, look, I mean, let's face it. This is a fundamental principle at stake here.
We expect and the president expects that other countries, other partners in these treaty arrangements abide by their contractual obligations. When they sign up to a treaty, you abide by it. You deliver.
When you break the rules, when you cheat — and, by the way, this is not just Open Skies, like I said. I mean, this is a pattern of Russian violation of arms control agreements across the board. We can't forget that, just a few months ago, maybe a year ago, Russia blew up the INF Treaty by secretly developing a ground-launched cruise missile nuclear-tipped that was explicitly prohibited by that treaty and deploying battalions of these things to target NATO forces.
So, we're unfortunately dealing with an unreliable partner here. And there have to be consequences, starting with the fact that, if they're going to cheat, we have the right to go ahead and withdraw from the treaty. And that's what the president has decided to do.
Of course Russia uses everything they can to justify some of the propaganda and bad behavior, but Open Skies had a couple of venues in order to block that.
Georgia, for example, used Open Skies to complain about what Russia was doing on its borders.
And when Russia rammed Ukrainian ships and kidnapped Ukrainian sailors back into Russia, NATO used Open Skies in order to fly over Russian territory to try and make a point.
So, why give up that tool?
Well, the tool hasn't been abandoned. The treaty will continue to operate, and our NATO allies will continue to exercise their treaty rights as they see fit.
It's going to be important that, going forward, the other countries that remain inside the Open Skies Treaty continue to hold the Russians to account. And, of course, we're going to work with our NATO allies because we have plenty of facilities and forces still based in Europe.
The future of strategic nuclear arms control, obviously, we need to move on to talking about New START, which expires earlier next year.
You are announcing — you are announcing today that you and your Russian colleague will sit down and talk about the extension of New START. You said you expect China to be there.
It took 24 years for the Soviet Union to agree to on-site inspections. Why don't do you think you can get that done or something similar with the Chinese in the next seven months?
Well, look, it is true that we have built up a systematic way of engaging between the United States and Soviet Union, now the United States and Russia, that has provided some real advantages.
We have a risk reduction center and a hot line, ways to really reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear exchange. And we need to get that dynamic going with the Chinese as well.
If they really do want to be treated as a great power, which I think they do, then they're going to need to be prepared to show up and behave like a great power, negotiate with United States in Russia, and agree to the kind of verification and transparency measures that we need, given that we know that China is engaged in a secretive and unconstrained nuclear weapons buildup.
How can you get that done in the next six to seven months, before New START expires? At what point is some arms control better than none — no arms control?
The New START treaty doesn't have the kind of verification measures we once had with the Russians.
And we want to restore that. We want to restore it, and we want to extend it to include the Chinese. This is something that the Russians themselves have recognized in the past.
In fact, my counterpart, the deputy foreign minister, Minister Ryabkov, himself, right after New START was adopted, made clear that the next arms control agreement needed to be multilateral.
I agree with him. And we're going to work together. And I have made clear to him that I do expect Russia to help bring China to the negotiating table. So, I'm optimistic. And I do reassure your viewers that the president is committed to the future of nuclear arms control.
But he wants a good deal for the American people.
We will have to leave it there.
Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, thank you very much.
Thanks, Nick. Good to see you.
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