U.S. tells Russia it won't rejoin arms control pact that was 'undermined by Russian violations'

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WASHINGTON — The United States has told Russia it will not rejoin an arms control agreement that allows member countries to conduct surveillance flights over each others' territory, accusing Moscow of violating the accord.

The decision not to re-enter the Open Skies Treaty came only weeks before a planned summit between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The U.S. move leaves only one major arms control agreement in place between the two nuclear-armed powers, the New START treaty. Biden has agreed to extend that accord another five years.

"The United States regrets that the treaty on Open Skies has been undermined by Russian violations," a State Department spokesperson told NBC News. "In concluding its review of the treaty, the United States therefore does not intend to seek to rejoin it given Russia's failure to take any actions to return to compliance."

The spokesperson also said Russia's recent actions, including in Ukraine, did not indicate it was a partner "committed to confidence building." Russia recently deployed large numbers of troops, tanks and aircraft near Ukraine's borders before scaling back what it said was an "exercise."

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of the decision on Thursday, the spokesperson said.

Signed by the United States in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty allows unarmed observation aircraft to fly over countries' territories to observe military forces. The agreement was meant to promote transparency and defuse potential tension between Russia and the West.

The 34 member states to the treaty have conducted 1,500 observation flights through October 2019.

Former President Donald Trump announced the U.S. exit from the treaty last year, but officials in Washington and Moscow had held out the possibility that two sides could rejoin. The lower house of Russia's parliament voted last week to pull out of the accord.

Russia has rejected U.S. accusations that it failed to abide by the treaty and blasted Trump's decision to leave the pact.

Some U.S. arms control experts criticized the U.S. decision, saying the treaty was a helpful tool to prevent an inadvertent conflict or crisis.

"It is both unfortunate and dangerous that the United States decided to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, and Russia's decision to do the same only makes a bad situation worse," said Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a senior adviser at Global Zero, an international organization dedicated to eliminating all nuclear weapons.

"Open Skies was designed to make it harder for states to secretly amass forces and invade or intervene across the border of another state," he said. "In today's environment, where any small clash of force can quickly escalate, Open Skies is needed now more than ever."

Although observation flights are not as effective at collecting information as sophisticated satellites, the treaty's advocates have argued the flights offer a way to build trust and avoid potential miscalculation.

U.S. officials over the years accused Russia of restricting access for Open Skies flights over the strategic area of Kaliningrad, over Moscow, and along the border between Russia and the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The United States responded to limitations imposed by Russia by limiting the length of flights over Hawaii and barring access to two U.S. Air Force bases used during Russian missions over the U.S..

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said the decision was "unfortunate albeit not surprising."

As a presidential candidate, Biden sharply slammed Trump for abandoning the treaty. But administration officials found their options to revive the treaty were "extremely limited" given the fallout from Trump's move, according to Reif.

"The gutting of the treaty reinforces the importance of the United States and Russia resuming a regular strategic stability and security dialogue and pursuing effective measures to reduce the risks of miscalculation and conflict," he said.

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