Supporters of a treaty meant to reduce the risk of accidental war are sounding the alarm President Trump could withdraw from the agreement as the world’s attention is consumed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Open Skies Treaty allows the pact’s 35 signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over each other’s territories with the intention of providing transparency about military activities to avoid miscalculations that could lead to war.
Administration officials insist a review is ongoing as four top Democrats warned this past week that withdrawing “in the midst of a global health crisis is not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable.”
“We are deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s sustained push to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty and we reject the administration’s arguments for pursuing withdrawal,”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement.
“This effort appears intended to limit appropriate congressional consultation on, and scrutiny of, the decision,” they added.
A House aide told The Hill that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo two weeks ago agreed to a withdrawal despite two planned National Security Council (NSC) meetings on the issue being canceled in February and March.
“Their decision to withdraw prompted strong objection from the UK, France, Germany and Poland,” the aide added.
A Democratic aide in the Senate similarly said “we have heard that Secretary Esper and Secretary Pompeo agreed to something” without NSC meetings, adding that “this week, French officials reiterated they object to any decision to withdraw from Open Skies.”
The aide said they haven’t heard from the Germans, United Kingdom or Poland recently, but “they are already on record against a U.S. withdrawal from Open Skies.”
The Pentagon referred The Hill to the White House for comment.
A senior administration official and the State Department told The Hill a review process into the treaty is ongoing, but did not dispute the aides’ characterization.
“The United States has not withdrawn from the Treaty on Open Skies,” the senior administration official said. “We are currently reviewing the costs and benefits associated with our participation and considering all options under the treaty to achieve our national security objectives.”
A State Department official, meanwhile, said the department does “not comment on rumors.”
“We continue to implement the treaty, although flights are currently suspended due to COVID-19. Our review process continues,” the person said.
The National Defense Authorization Act signed into law in December requires the administration to notify Congress 120 days before it officially submits an intent to withdraw to the other treaty members. Under the process laid in the treaty, a formal notice of intent kicks off a six-month period before the withdrawal goes through.
The Open Skies Treaty, which went into force in 2002, has long been in the crosshairs of defense hawks, who argue Russian restrictions give Moscow an unfair advantage over the United States.
Russia in the past has restricted flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Because of those restrictions, an August report from the State Department said “the United States continued to assess that Russia was in violation of the Open Skies Treaty” in 2018, a determination first made in 2017.
Cruz, Cotton and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) last month also penned a letter to Trump arguing for a withdrawal.
“Even under conditions of good faith Russian implementation, the treaty is at best unnecessary and at worst a threat, since the U.S. does not gain additional intelligence beyond our far more advanced capabilities, while the Russians use their flights to gain a view of the homeland that is otherwise inaccessible to them,” they wrote.
But supporters of the treaty argue it’s about more than intelligence gathering for the United States, saying U.S. partners without sophisticated spy satellites benefit from the unclassified imagery.
The agreement has also been used to signal U.S. support for its allies and partners, such as with flights over Ukraine following Russia’s seizure of naval ships in 2018 and invasion of Crimea in 2014.
“At a time when tensions with Moscow are on the rise, the Open Skies Treaty serves as a very useful tool for the United States and our allies to monitor Russian military activities,” former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) wrote in a memo to the Trump administration released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative this week. “Unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Open Skies would undermine American allies and friends in Europe.”
Moscow’s flight restrictions, they added, “are related to underlying territorial and political issues between Russia and some of its neighbors” and should be addressed “through professional, pragmatic diplomacy, not by abandoning treaty commitments.”
The senior administration official told The Hill the administration is “committed to arms control efforts that advance U.S., allied and partner security, are verifiable and enforceable, and include partners that comply responsibly with their obligations.”
Some Republican lawmakers, too, continue to support the treaty.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told The Hill he is “deeply disappointed in Secretary Esper’s shortsighted reversal of DoD’s longstanding support for the Open Skies Treaty.”
“Open Skies remains our only ability to get direct access to Russian airfields and airspace, and every experienced operational commander knows all too well that satellites simply can’t do it all,” he said in a statement. “Our smaller NATO allies want and depend on the information they receive from these missions and value these opportunities to partner with us. This treaty builds trust through transparency, something you can’t surge in a crisis. This is a mistake.”
Bacon and fellow Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, whose districts include Offutt Air Force Base where the planes used to conduct the flights are based, are also co-sponsors of a bill from Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) that would block a U.S. withdrawal.
Amid the administration’s review of the treaty, Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month the Pentagon would hold off on replacing the aging OC-135 observation planes used for treaty flights.
The Russians, Esper said at the hearing, “have been cheating for many years.”
“I raised this at the defense ministerial last month with all of our NATO partners, that we need to speak out more clearly about Russian noncompliance,” he continued. “I have a lot of concerns about the treaty as it stands now.”
In their letter, Cruz, Cotton and Burr said the cost to replace the planes “would alone justify withdrawing from the treaty.”
Congress appropriated $41.5 million this fiscal year toward replacing the jets, with the entire project estimated to cost $250 million.
Smith, Engel, Reed and Menendez called the argument that replacing the planes is too costly “puzzling.”
“The total cost of replacing the aircraft is a tiny portion of the overall defense budget, representing less than one half of one percent of the topline,” they said. “We urge the administration to reverse course on this reckless policy decision rather than ramming it through while our country and the entire world grapples with an unprecedented crisis.”