U.S. signals intention to pull out of Open Skies surveillance treaty

The Trump administration notified international partners on Thursday that it is pulling out of a treaty that permits 30-plus nations to conduct unarmed, observation flights over each other's territory — overflights set up decades ago to promote trust and avert conflict.

Russia criticizes move to leave treaty which is aimed at fostering military transparency

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk during last year's G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Trump said Thursday the U.S. enjoys good relations with Russia despite being poised to pull out of a second military treaty with Cold War origins. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

The Trump administration notified international partners on Thursday that it is pulling out of a treaty that permits 30-plus nations to conduct unarmed, observation flights over each other's territory — overflights set up decades ago to promote trust and avert conflict.

The administration says it wants out of the Open Skies Treaty because Russia is violating the pact, and imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites. Exiting the treaty, however, is expected to strain relations with Moscow and upset European allies and some members of Congress.

"Russia didn't adhere to the treaty, so until they adhere, we will pull out," Trump said before departing Washington for a visit to a Michigan factory.

"But there's a very good chance we'll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together."

President Dwight Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and the former Soviet Union allow aerial reconnaissance flights over each other's territory in July 1955. At first, Moscow rejected the idea, but President George H.W. Bush revived it in May 1989, and the treaty entered into force in January 2002.

Currently, 34 nations have signed it, including Canada.

More than 1,500 flights have been conducted under the treaty, aimed at fostering transparency about military activity and helping monitor arms control and other agreements. Each nation in the treaty agrees to make all its territory available for surveillance flights, yet Russia has restricted flights over certain areas.

"So I think what's going to happen is we're going to pull out and [the Russians] are going to come back and want to make a deal," Trump said.

The U.S. announcement that it plans to leave the treaty is expected to strain relations with Moscow and upset some members of Congress and European allies, which benefit from the imagery collected by Open Skies flights conducted by the U.S.

A Russian Air Force Tu-214 flies over Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., in April 2019, an example of a flight occurring under the Open Skies Treaty. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald/The Associated Press)

In Moscow, deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko criticized the U.S. decision.

"Our position is absolutely clear and is invariable: The withdrawal of the U.S. from this treaty will come as yet another blow to the system of military security in Europe, which is already weakened by the previous moves by the administration," Grushko told state news agency Tass.

Last year, the Trump administration announced it was pulling the plug on the 1987 nuclear arms treaty with Russia. That treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, banned production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.

Trump's decision to exit the Open Skies Treaty also raises questions about his commitment to extending or renegotiating the New START treaty, which expires early next year. New START, the only remaining treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, imposes limits on the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and launchers. Russia has offered to extend the treaty, but Trump is holding out in hopes of negotiating a three-way agreement that also includes China.

"We look forward to negotiating with both Russia and China on a new arms control framework that moves beyond the Cold War constructs of the past and helps keep the entire world safe," U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien said in a statement.

'Slap in the face' to Europe: Democrats

Earlier this month, 16 former senior European military and defence officials signed a statement supporting Open Skies, saying that a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would be a blow to global security and further undermine the international arms control agreements.

The officials asked the U.S. to reconsider its exit and called for European states to stay in the treaty if the Americans left.

Last month, top Democrats on congressional committees in both the House and the Senate wrote to Trump accusing the president of "ramming ... through" a withdrawal from the treaty as the entire world grapples with COVID-19.

Renewed criticism came on Thursday, from the Democrat-led House foreign affairs committee.

"The Treaty on Open Skies has been a pillar of stability, transparency, and security for the United States and our European allies," said Eliot Engel of New York, chair of the committee. "The surveillance flights conducted under the Treaty are critical to augmenting the New START Treaty and other arms control measures, as well as shaping how Russia conducts flights over NATO and American bases — something they will do with or without our participation in Open Skies."

The Democratic-led House armed services committee went a step further in their statement, calling it both a "slap in the face" to the country's allies in Europe and a "blatant violation of law," as Congress had not been consulted at all per the Defense Authorization Act.

Senior administration officials said Trump last fall ordered a comprehensive review of the costs and benefits of U.S. participation in the Open Skies Treaty. At the end of an eight-month review, which included extensive input from allies, it became clear that it was no longer in America's interest to remain party to the treaty, the officials said.

The U.S. notified other members of the treaty on Thursday, and the United States will formally pull out in six months.

The senior administration officials said Russian violations of the treaty were the main reason for exiting the treaty. They said Russia has restricted flights over Moscow and Chechnya and near Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas praised the move on Thursday, saying it was no longer a "good faith agreement."

Russian restrictions also make it difficult to conduct observation in the Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland that is home to Russia's Baltic fleet, they said.

Russia uses illegal overflight restrictions along the Georgian border in support of its narrative that the Russian-occupied enclaves of Georgia are independent countries. The senior administration officials said that amounted to an illegal restriction, under the treaty, coupled with a narrative that justifies Russia's regional aggression.

Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official and currently the senior policy director at the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said withdrawal from Open Skies will rub allies the wrong way.

"I absolutely cannot see a single upside to abandoning this treaty against the advice and wishes of our allies, other than for the people who never liked this treaty and don't like the idea of the transparency and openness the treaty provides," Bell said.

"It's a Republican legacy treaty."