US President Donald Trump has announced that the US is leaving the Open Skies treaty, which allows mutual unarmed surveillance flights over member countries as a confidence building measure. He blamed Russia for the decision:
“I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty,” Trump said on Thursday, adding: “Until they adhere we will pull out.”
The Open Skies treaty, first officially proposed by US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 (and reportedly rejected by the Soviet Union), was signed in 1992 and took effect in 2002. The treaty is used in part to help verify arms control agreements, and would affect the US military’s ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia and other member countries. It offers all signatories, regardless of size, a role in gathering information about military forces and is regarded as a wide-ranging international effort to promote military transparency through ‘mutual aerial observation’.
Over 1,500 Open Skies flights have been conducted since the deal entered into force in 2002, according to media reports. The US Air Force used two Boeing OC-135B aircraft for the conduct of its reconnaissance flights under the treaty, each assigned to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
The administration also pulled the United States out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia last year, which had limited the development and deployment of short-range ground-based missiles. Under New START, the United States and Russia agreed to limit deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 and continue with on-site inspection protocols, test launch notifications, and data exchanges, vital mechanisms for ensuring a degree of predictability especially during periods of tension. With the expiration of New START in February 2021 and seemingly no clear path to an extension, that gives added importance for the Open Skies treaty.
Senior officials said the withdrawal will formally take place in six months, based on the treaty’s procedure for withdrawal, which also requires a meeting of all signatories within 60 days to review the matter. The prospect of such a withdrawal last year was roundly condemned by senior members of several congressional committees:
“In a letter to White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” by reports that President Donald Trump is considering withdrawal from the treaty.
Similarly, a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also signed by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Senate Armed Services Committee member Jack Reed, D-R.I., called withdrawal from the treaty “another gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Mendendez said in his letter, “Not only is there no case for withdrawal on the grounds of national security, there has been no consultation with the Congress or with our allies about this consequential decision. Any action by this administration to withdraw from critical international treaties without the approval of the Senate is deeply concerning.”
The suggestions late last year that the US was considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty also prompted a negative response from many of the US’ key allies:
“European support for Open Skies so far has included a joint verbal demarche, or diplomatic protest, to the National Security Council from a number of Nordic countries, and another joint demarche from Germany, the U.K. and France; Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. reportedly also made a visit to the White House to argue on the treaty’s behalf.
Sweden, a particularly active participant in the fight to save Open Skies, sent a letter from its defense minister, Peter Hultgvist, to the U.S. Defense Secretary…
“A well-functioning Open Skies Treaty contributes to the ability to hold states, including the Russian Federation, accountable for breaches against the norms and principles that underpin the European security architecture. The Treaty is vital as one of very few remaining confidence and security building measures,” Hultqvist wrote in the Oct. 24 letter, obtained by Defense News.
“One aspect of maintaining the Treaty is to work with other participants to curtail any violations. In our view, it important that violations of others not be taken as grounds for withdrawing from the Treaty altogether,” Hultqvist wrote.”
However, it is not yet clear how they will respond this time round. TASS reports that:
“The NATO headquarters has confirmed the plan to hold a North Atlantic Council meeting on May 22 to address Washington’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, a staffer of the NATO press service told TASS Thursday.
The alliance also expressed concern about the Russia’s alleged “selective implementation of the Open Skies Treaty.”.
“All Allies agree that arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation make essential contributions to achieving the Alliance’s security. At the 2018 Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government reiterated their concern over Russia’s selective implementation of the Open Skies Treaty, and that this undermines our security. In particular, we are concerned that Russia has restricted flights over certain areas. Allies continue to consult closely on the future of the treaty and the North Atlantic Council will meet tomorrow to discuss the issue,” the press service staffer noted.”
The US announcement raises the immediate question: will the remaining signatories still permit overflights by other States that remain committed to the treaty (and exclude flights by the US), or will they also suspend participation or withdraw from the treaty? It could be argued that Russia and other non-NATO States would be most disadvantaged by such an arrangement (permitting overflights by the remaining member-States), as the US would still have access to information gathered by its allies’ overflights of Russia one way or another, while Russia and Kazakhstan would lose their ability to gather corresponding information from US airspace completely.
The 35 state parties to the Open Skies treaty are: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark (including Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.