Trump administration to withdraw from Open Skies Treaty


Stay tuned for updates as this story develops. Last updated May 21, 2020, at 12:50 p.m. EST.

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has made a final decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty and will make a formal announcement before the end of the week, sources confirmed to Defense News on Thursday.

The administration has begun informing the other 34 members in the agreement, which allows mutual reconnaissance flights over the member nations, including Russia. At 12:40 p.m., the news was confirmed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The move, first reported Thursday by The New York Times, was not a surprise, as administration officials signaled to European allies toward the end of last year that unless major changes were made to the overflight agreement, the U.S. would consider withdrawing. However, there had been little movement in the months since, giving advocates hope that a decision to exit the treaty had not been finalized.

"It was pretty clear from meetings that it was basically a done deal and it was just a matter of when," one European source said.

Allies generally argue the treaty is a valuable channel for transparency and dialogue between Russia and the United States, the world's top two nuclear superpowers. Critics of the treaty have argued that the U.S. gets better intelligence from satellite systems and that the funding to replace the aging OC-135 aircraft can be spent elsewhere.

A second European source acknowledged that Russia has not always complied with the treaty, but said there was a sense that those issues could be resolved. The source predicted that those NATO members who are also part of the treaty will remain, but was unclear what Russia will do next.

"If you're Russia, you can stay in and take the moral high ground, say, 'We still honor international treaties, even if America doesn't,' or you can say the treaty is diminished beyond usefulness and you pull out. I don't know which they'll do, but neither is good for NATO," the source said.

The source added that while it is true the U.S. gets its best intelligence from its satellites as opposed to OC-135 flights, focusing entirely on that is "selfish" because "a lot of NATO allies rely on Open Skies for visibility into what goes on in Russia."

Key Democrats and arms control advocates quickly denounced the administration's withdrawal plans as dangerous and destabilizing to America's relationships with allies.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., blasted the administration for defying a requirement in the 2020 defense policy law that Trump first give Congress 120-days notice. Multiple communications with Congress on the issue had "gone unanswered," they said.

"The Administration's decision to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty is a slap in the face to our allies in Europe, leaves our deployed forces in the region at risk, and is in blatant violation of the law," they said in a joint statement. "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."

When signing the defense policy legislation into law, Trump had indicated that he didn't consider himself bound by the requirement, citing his executive powers.

"I reiterate the longstanding understanding of the executive branch that these types of provisions encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the President's exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs," the president's Dec. 20 signing statement read.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said during a noon briefing that the department has "nothing to announce on the Open Skies treaty."

Throughout its term, the Trump administration has been skeptical of arms control agreements. The U.S. and Russia walked away from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last August, and officials have expressed skepticism about renewing the New START nuclear agreement with Russia, which expires in 2021.


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