“The United States still has a month to think about it”

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In the coming days, the Russian government will submit to the president a bill denouncing the Open Skies Treaty (OON). This was stated by the head of the Russian delegation at the talks in Vienna on military security and arms control Konstantin Gavrilov… The diplomat answered in writing to Izvestia’s questions about under what condition Russia can stay in the Don, how the United States chooses, from which treaties to withdraw, and what, from Moscow’s point of view, the new arms control regime in Europe should be.

“We are open to hard work”

– At the first plenary meeting of the 85th session of the Open Skies Advisory Commission (UNSC), you said that now everything is heading towards the collapse of the treaty and that Russia will not make any more concessions. The Russian side gave the United States time until the end of May to “clearly and unequivocally” announce its return to Don. Why was this period indicated?

– First of all, I would like to note that the end of May is the approximate date for the completion of domestic procedures for the withdrawal of the Russian Federation from the Don… You probably remember that this process was launched in January, when it became clear that the remaining states – parties to the treaty were not ready to give Russia legal guarantees on two most important aspects – the non-transfer of information received during observation flights to countries that are not members of the OST, as well as unimpeded the implementation of open skies missions over the US military infrastructure in the European participating states. Well, apparently, American pressure had an effect. We could not wait indefinitely for the negotiating partners to finally “mature” to address our concerns.… The national security of the Russian Federation was at stake, and such issues cannot be delayed.

aviation surveillance aircraft Tu-214ON

Aviation observation aircraft Tu-214ON

Photo: Global Look Press / wikipedia.org / Oleg Belyakov

Domestic procedures for withdrawing from an agreement are a complex, multi-stage process that requires interdepartmental coordination. It takes time… We expect that one of these days the bill on denunciation of the DON will already be submitted by the government to the president, and then it will go for sequential consideration in the chambers of the Federal Assembly. When the procedures are completed, we will hand over an official note on Russia’s withdrawal from the DON to the depositories of the treaty – Hungary and Canada. Then the six-month period will begin prior to our actual withdrawal from the contract… Chaired by the depositories, an extraordinary conference of the participating States will take place, which will consider the reasons and possible consequences of our decision for the Open Skies community.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The United States still has a month to think about it. If they choose to reaffirm their commitment to building confidence and military transparency, it won’t be our business.… We are open to painstaking work on the settlement of mutual claims within the framework of the OST, both with the United States and with other participating states.

By the way, we continue to fully fulfill our contractual obligations even now. At the UNSC site, we productively cooperate with partners on the technical issues of implementing the OST, including with the involvement of military specialists from the capitals.

– Recently, US President Joe Biden invited Russian leader Vladimir Putin to hold a personal meeting. According to preliminary reports, it may take place in the summer. When proposing the summit, Washington claimed that they intend to actively cooperate with Moscow on security issues and the topic of disarmament, in particular. Does this concern the problem of the Don – can the Russian and American presidents discuss the fate of the treaty at the summit? Is Moscow not considering a scenario in which it will wait with the withdrawal from the Don before these negotiations?

– The question of the summit, its agenda and the positions of the leaders of the Russian Federation and the United States on specific topics are outside the competence of our delegation.

White House in Washington

Photo: Global Look Press / Xinhua / Ting Shen

– In November 2020, you said that, having withdrawn from the treaty, Washington should not “receive observer status with all its privileges.” Did US representatives attend UNSC meetings following the US abandonment of the OST?

– Indeed, on July 6, 2020, at the conference of the participating states related to the withdrawal of the United States from the treaty, we announced the loss of the United States’ right to observer status with all its privileges, including those related to influencing the development of draft UNSC decisions, access to aerial photography materials from observation equipment based on the results of observation flights, as well as participation in UNSC meetings, as provided for by the relevant UNSC decision (Decision No. 6, Appendix 1 of July 16, 1993).

Accordingly, after November 22, 2020 US representatives do not attend UNSC and its informal working groups

“The US often selfishly neglects confidence-building interests.”

– The new US administration, on the one hand, promptly extended the START treaty, and on the other hand, it is delaying the response under the Open Skies Treaty. How does Moscow explain to itself the ambiguity of this approach?

– When making decisions on international agreements in the field of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, the United States proceeds from their weight in terms of its own national security.

Wherein they often selfishly disregard the interests of building confidence, transparency and security in other states, including in Europe. It happened with DON… The United States has a large satellite constellation capable of compensating for the lack of the possibility of observing the territories of Russia and Belarus during observation flights of the “open skies”. The Europeans, as we understand it, do not have such resources in reserve.

– In early April, there were reports in the media that the United States was scrapping aircraft used to fly over Russian territory. How is this news perceived in Moscow?

– The prerequisites for this were seen during US observation flights in February and March 2020, when the Americans used aircraft from other participating states in all open skies missions.

As for media reports on this issue, we regard them as publications not confirmed by official statements.

Of course the presence or absence of its own observation aircraft, as well as their condition (American aircraft are more than 50 years old), cannot be decisive when deciding to withdraw from the treaty, as well as to return to the Open Skies community

Air surveillance aircraft An-30

Air surveillance aircraft An-30

Photo: Global Look Press / Yury Kirsanov

– With the withdrawal of the US from the treaty, Russia and its other signatories lost the ability to fly over American territory. Leaving the document, Russia will lose access to European countries and, it turns out, will not be able to monitor military movements in the immediate vicinity of its borders. Is this too risky a step? How will Moscow monitor military activity in European states without being part of the Don?

– It is hardly possible to imagine a situation when the Russian Federation, when deciding to launch domestic procedures for withdrawing from the treaty, did not assess the possible risks and their compensation. This decision appears to have been preceded by a comprehensive and balanced examination.

“Only Belarus itself can decide”

– Russia and Belarus are part of the same group of states – members of the OST. Does this mean that when Moscow withdraws from the treaty, Minsk will also leave it? If not, will Belarus be able to transfer data from European territory to Russia (by analogy with how, according to Moscow, its data can get to the United States)?

Only Belarus itself can decide whether it will continue to remain in the Don after Russia’s possible withdrawal from it or not. With regard to the second part of your question, we proceed from the fact that the OST does not provide for the possibility of transferring information received within its framework to states that are not parties to it. True, our Western colleagues, as I have already said, did not want to concretize the relevant provisions.

– In early April, the Ministry of Defense of Belarus announced that Moscow and Minsk had agreed on the issues of bilateral implementation of the Don. Can you clarify how our countries will interact on this document in 2021?

– Yes, indeed, it is. It is quite natural that the issues of further bilateral implementation of the Don were discussed. First of all, the negotiations concerned the fate of the Russian-Belarusian intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in a group of participating states, which was signed in Minsk on February 21, 1995, connected with the treaty. At present, this issue is being considered by the Foreign Ministries of Russia and Belarus. Based on the results of this study, we intend to continue consultations with the Belarusian side.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Photo: Izvestia / Tatiana Polevaya

– In February, representatives of Belarus made a proposal to Europe to start negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE on a new regime of arms control in Europe. How does Moscow assess this initiative? How realistic is it to start such negotiations in the current environment?

Russia is always open for a frank and equal dialogue on security issues based on a balance of interests and mutual benefit… We consider the prospects for future control over conventional arms in Europe (COE) in the context of the pan-European political process, the formation of a common understanding of a new model of European security and the further development of its key elements.

It is too early to talk about the beginning of practical work on the future COVE – real conditions are hardly ripe. But it is necessary to accumulate “intellectual capital” in this direction. From our point of view, the future regime should reflect the balance of interests of all participating states, exclude the military superiority of any group of states, contribute to the de-escalation of tensions in Europe, contribute to the prevention of a subregional arms race, establish a low-cost verification mechanism and not contain any links with issues of conflict resolution.