Washington’s pending withdrawal from a confidence-building international treaty that permits member nations to conduct observation flights over each other’s territory is going to present Canada with a difficult strategic challenge, according to one Canadian defence expert.
Rob Huebert, who teaches political science at the University of Calgary, said the Trudeau government could be faced with an awkward choice between sticking to Canada’s decades-long policy of supporting international arms control treaties and running the risk of looking “like a toady to the United States” by following Washington’s lead and withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty.
Huebert said the treaty, which was signed in 1992 and came into effect in 2002, permits each of the 34 treaty members to conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the entire territories of other treaty members to collect data on military forces and activities.
Canada is one of the original signatories to the treaty, which gives it the right to conduct two reconnaissance flights a year over Russia — and the obligation to allow two Russian flights over Canadian territory annually.
“It’s a form of verification. You don’t have to necessarily like someone or trust someone, but you can see for yourself if they’re doing what they say they’re going to do,” Huebert said.
Claiming that Russia is violating the pact, the Trump administration informed other members of the treaty last Thursday that the U.S. plans to pull out in six months. The White House also says that imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites.
‘[A] very serious political challenge’
“If the Russians pull out, then we’d sidestep one potentially very serious political challenge with our American neighbours,” Huebert said.
“But if the Russians decide to stay in the treaty, then it means we either have to say yes, we’re in the treaty and Russians and us, we can still have the overflights, and that means flying over the Canadian part of North America. One could imagine what the Americans’ response to that will be.”
Syrine Khoury, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, said Canada views the Open Skies Treaty as a key tool of global arms control.
“We understand and share many of the U.S. concerns regarding Russian non-compliance with the Open Skies Treaty,” Khoury told Radio Canada International.
“Nonetheless, we continue to believe that if Russia returns to full compliance, the treaty could continue to serve as an important tool for promoting military transparency, building mutual confidence and reducing misunderstandings.”
Canada will consult with other state parties to determine the impact of the Trump administration’s announcement on the treaty’s continuation, Khoury added.
Trump suggested Thursday that “there’s a very good chance” he’ll come to a new agreement with Russia if Moscow adheres to the treaty.
“So I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they (the Russians) are going to come back and want to make a deal,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Huebert said a U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty must be seen in the context of a new American strategic doctrine and the Trump administration’s broader moves to withdraw from arms control treaties.
“If one starts reading the latest American strategic policies — they’re now, for example, putting low-yield nuclear weapons on their ballistic missile submarines — it’s almost as if the Americans are going towards a greater possibility of a nuclear warfighting environment,” Huebert said.
“If that’s true, everything changes.”
While Trump’s assertion that Russia is cheating on its obligations under the treaty is correct — particularly when it comes to allowing overflights of breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — few Canadian experts agree that it’s something worth destroying the entire treaty over, Huebert said.
“But obviously, Trump has shown very little inclination to try and fix any multilateral organization,” he said. “This is part of the philosophy ‘America First.’ And that goes to the defence and the use of nuclear weapons, and all that entails.”
Russia decried the U.S. withdrawal as “a deplorable development for European security.”
According to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow sees Washington’s move “as an ultimatum rather than a foundation for discussion.”
“That said, Moscow was not surprised by Washington’s decision, which characterizes its approach to discarding the entire package of arms control agreements and trust-building measures in the military sphere,” the Russian statement continued.
Russia has denied U.S. accusations of non-compliance and said it has questions of its own about U.S. compliance, but prefers to resolve these issues through the mechanisms provided by the treaty.
“Russia’s policy on the treaty will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners,” the ministry said.