- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Trump administration Thursday said it was preparing to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, a nearly 20-year-old international agreement that allows dozens of nations to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territory but one that President Trump and other critics say isn’t being enforced and is no longer in the U.S. national interest.

Russia and many European capitals swiftly condemned the move, as did senior Democrats in Congress, but the move showed Mr. Trump’s determination to reject or re-write multilateral accords — some dating back to the Cold War — if the U.S. is not being treated fairly.

U.S. officials have complained about restrictions Moscow has put on overflights of certain areas, including Chechnya and Russia’s strategic Kaliningrad enclave in Europe. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies also have warned Moscow is using Open Skies flights over the U.S. and Europe to map out targets and infrastructure that could be hit by a conventional or cyberattack.

President Trump said he will notify the primary signatories of the agreement on Friday, but left the door open for further negotiations.

“I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty, and so until they adhere to the treaty, we will pull out,” Mr. Trump said Thursday afternoon. “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

The American pullout would take effect six months from now, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration reserves the right to “reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance” with the accord. But Mr. Pompeo also was harshly critical of Moscow’s record in honoring its treaty obligations to date.

“Rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency,” Mr. Pompeo said, Russia has “weaponized the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”

The move came on the same day a top U.S. officials suggested the administration would make a concerted push to demand China be included in any extension of the U.S.-Russia New START arms control deal, negotiated by the Obama administration and set to expire in February.

Russia has pressed for an extension of the last major arms pact between the two capitals and State Department arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea said Thursday he has had preliminary talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on a possible deal, amid reports a short-term extension may be under consideration.

Russian officials said Thursday the proposed Open Skies withdrawal was regrettable but not surprising, given Mr. Trump’s hostility to other international pacts the U.S. once championed.

“It is easier to break than to build,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, told the Russian media outlet Sputnik News.

“The treaty worked for two decades and ensured transparency, a higher level of trust on military issues in the transatlantic region. But the decision to leave, apparently, explains the U.S. idea of a ‘new era’ of arms control. The ‘new era’ seems to mean no control. This is sad,” Mr. Ulyanov was quoted as saying.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged flaws in the agreement but said he “deeply regretted” the U.S. threat to leave. NATO ambassadors were reportedly meeting Friday to discuss the impact of the move.

Divisions on the Hill

Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who has led the push on Capitol Hill against the Open Skies agreement, welcomed Mr. Trump’s decision, saying the pact was as “outdated and irrelevant as the VHS recorder or cassette deck.”

“The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence,” the Arkansas Republican said in a statement. The Kremlin, he charged, viewed the treaty as “just another scheme to snatch a military and surveillance advantage over the U.S. and NATO.”

Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added, “The Open Skies Treaty was designed to be a tool of peace – yet [Russian President Vladimir Putin] has used it as a tool of war. Russia has been in clear violation of the treaty for years, denying the United States and our allies overflights of Kaliningrad and the Georgia-Russia border.”

But top Democrats — and many in the traditional arms control community — were quick to condemn Mr. Trump.

“This decision weakens our national security interests, isolates the United States since the treaty will continue without us, and abandons a useful tool to hold Russia accountable,” House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, and Rep. Jim Cooper, Tennessee Democrat, said in a statement.

Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at the liberal Defense Priorities advocacy group, said the bigger issue with Mr. Trump’s move was the signal it sent.

“Along with the U.S. exit from other major arms control treaties, this move reveals a disconcerting pattern of pointless hostility to treaties which will make future accords more difficult to negotiate,” he said in a statement.

And writing on Twitter, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former CIA director under Presidents Bush and Obama, simply called Mr. Trump’s move “insane.”

Terminating treaties

Withdrawing from the agreement would be the third major arms deal jettisoned under Mr. Trump. The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty last August, also citing Russian violations. In 2018, Mr. Trump pulled out of the multilateral Iran nuclear accord and reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.

President Eisenhower first proposed the concept behind the Open Skies Treaty for the U.S. and the Soviet Union in July 1955. At first, the Kremlin rejected the idea, but the idea was revived under President George H.W. Bush in 1989, and the treaty entered into force in January 2002.

Mr. Trump last November privately signed off on the decision to pull the U.S. out of the 34-country Open Skies pact. It was originally conceived as a way to lower international tensions by allowing treaty members to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights over each others’ territory to collect data on military forces and activities.

U.S. unhappiness with the nearly three-decades-old treaty grew last year after Russia restricted U.S. surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, the strategic Russian military enclave that sits between Lithuania and Poland. The U.S. responded by prohibiting Russian flights over Hawaii and several Air Force bases.

Experts have cautioned that a formal U.S. withdrawal is likely to push Moscow out of the treaty, as well as other European allies, leaving all parties with less clarity on what the others are doing.

Supporters of the treaty have argued that such European partners could be aggravated by another U.S. repudiation of a major multilateral security pact. All but two of the European Union’s 29 member countries have joined the agreement and when the U.S. conducts intelligence flights, European allies are often brought along.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman on Thursday suggested the U.S. would support an agreement like Open Skies — but only if it were being effectively enforced.

“The United States does remain fully committed to agreements that advance U.S. allied and partner security, are verifiable and enforceable, and include partners that comply responsibly with their obligations,” he told reporters.

Russia flagrantly and continuously violates its obligations under Open Skies,” he continued, “and implements the treaty in ways that contribute to military threats against the United States and our allies and partners.”

Mr. Hoffman offered several examples of Russia violating the deal, including instances in which Russia has prohibited foreign unarmed surveillance flights within six miles of the tense Russia-Georgia border.

On New START, Mr. Trump also hinted Thursday he would be open to a future deal that included China, but it remains unclear whether the administration will seek a brief extension of the treaty for several months. The current language only allows for a 5-year extension by mutual agreement.

“We’re probably going to make a deal with Russia on arms treaties, and China will be maybe included in that,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We’ll see what happens.”

Saying its nuclear arsenal is dwarfed by those of the U.S. and Russia, Beijing has repeatedly said it has no interest in joining three-way talks.

Bill Gertz and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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