Russian lawmakers vote to abandon overflight treaty

Photo: AP In this photo provided by the State Duma, deputies attend a session at the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

The Russian parliament’s lower house voted Wednesday to withdraw from an international treaty allowing surveillance flights over military facilities following the US departure from the pact, AP reports.

The Russian exit from the Open Skies Treaty is yet to be endorsed by the upper house of parliament and needs to be signed by President Vladimir Putin to take effect. Moscow has signaled its readiness to reverse the withdrawal procedure and stay in the treaty if the US returns to the agreement.

The withdrawal vote comes hours before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were to hold their first meeting on the sidelines of a gathering of top diplomats from the Arctic countries in Reykjavik, Iceland. They are expected to focus on setting the stage for a planned summit next month between US President Joe Biden and Putin.

The Open Skies Treaty was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by allowing the accord’s more than three dozen signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories to collect information about military forces and activities. More than 1,500 flights have been conducted under the treaty since it took effect in 2002, aimed at fostering transparency about military activity and helping monitor arms control and other agreements.

Then US President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact last year, arguing that Russian violations made it untenable for Washington to remain a party. Washington completed its withdrawal from the treaty in November.

Moscow has deplored the US withdrawal, warning that it will erode global security by making it more difficult for governments to interpret the intentions of other nations, particularly amid heightened Russia-West tensions.

Moscow’s ties with Washington and its NATO allies have sunk to post-Cold War lows after the 2014 Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The European Union has urged the US to reconsider its exit and called on Russia to stay in the pact and lift flight restrictions, notably over its westernmost Kaliningrad region, which lies between NATO allies Lithuania and Poland.

Russia has insisted that the restrictions on observation flights it imposed in the past were permissible by the treaty and noted that the US imposed more sweeping restrictions on observation flights over Alaska.

As a condition for staying in the pact after the US pullout, Moscow has unsuccessfully pushed for guarantees from NATO allies that they wouldn’t hand over the data collected during their observation flights over Russia to the US.

The upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to follow suit on the bill on 2 June and once Putin signs the withdrawal bill it takes six months for the Russian exit to take effect.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told lawmakers Wednesday that if during that period the US declares its intention to return to the pact, a “new diplomatic process will start.” He added, however, that he considers that unlikely.

Leonid Slutsky, the head of foreign affairs committee in the lower house, has said that the upper chamber initially planned to vote on leaving the pact on Wednesday, but pushed it back on Putin’s suggestion to offer the US more time to consider a comeback.

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