Trump admin pulling out of Open Skies reconnaissance treaty over Russia violations

The goal of the treaty, which went into force in 2002, is to avoid conflict and encourage trust among participating nations.

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By Elisha Fieldstadt, Kristen Welker, Courtney Kube and Associated Press

The Trump administration plans to withdraw from the Open Skies arms control treaty, which allows more than 30 nations to conduct unarmed, short-notice flights over one another's territories, a senior administration official confirmed to NBC News.

The administration says it wants out of the treaty because Russia is violating the pact and because imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites.

The New York Times first reported the news.

The goal of the treaty, which went into force in 2002, is to avoid conflict and encourage trust among participating nations. More than 1,500 flights have been conducted under the treaty, but Russia has restricted flights over certain areas.

"I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn't adhere to the treaty," President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday. "Until they adhere, we will pull out. But there's a very good chance we'll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.

"I think that's what's going to happen, is we're going to pull out, and they're going to come back and going to want to make a deal," Trump said.

The decision could raise questions about Trump's commitment to extending or renegotiating the New START treaty, the only remaining treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, which limits the numbers of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear missiles.

Russia has offered to extend the treaty, which expires early next year, but Trump is holding out in hope of negotiating a three-way agreement to include China.

The Russian Mission to NATO said Thursday on Twitter: "If it does happen, it will be very regrettable. Unfortunately, it goes w/ general policy of current US Adm. to derail all arms control agreements. Treaty is crucial for ensuring mutual trust in Europe & on a larger scale."

Former State Department official Alexandra Bell, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said New START was "too important of a treaty to lose."

"Our security and the security of the globe will be reduced if we lose New START," Bell said. "The U.S. would no longer have eyes inside the Russian strategic forces for the first time in half a century — that is an extremely dangerous situation."

Lawmakers, former officials blast decision

Exiting the Open Skies treaty is expected to strain relations with Moscow and upset European allies. Members of Congress swiftly spoke out against the decision Thursday.

"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," Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., chairman of the committee's Strategic Forces subcommittee, said in a 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," the statement said. "What's more, this decision has been made without any consultation with Congress."

Former Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, urged the president to "reverse this decision, recommit to working with our allies to fix issues with the Open Skies Treaty and get rid of the staff who keep trying to wreck the global arms control and nonproliferation infrastructure in his name."

"There are some compliance problems with the treaty, but experts and our allies believe they can and must be solved," Tierney said. "The Open Skies Treaty has built trust, provided stability, and eased tensions between the United States, Russia and 32 other countries across the Euro-Atlantic region. The transparency it provides has helped prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings that could have otherwise led to conflict."

Tierney said that following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the treaty has helped provide information to the U.S. and its allies.

Last month, top Democrats on the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees in both the House and the Senate wrote to Trump accusing him of "ramming" a withdrawal from the treaty as the world grapples with COVID-19. They said the move would undermine U.S. alliances with European allies that rely on the treaty to keep Russia accountable for its military activities in the region.

"The administration's effort to make a major change to our national security policy in the midst of a global health crisis is not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable," wrote Smith, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., also urged the president to remain in the treaty in a letter in March, as well as in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in October.

"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," they wrote in their letter.

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

The officials asked the U.S. to reconsider its exit. But if the U.S. leaves, they called for European nations to stay in the treaty, fulfill its obligations and refrain from restricting the length of observation flights or banning flights over certain territories.

'No longer in America's interest'

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.

But the senior administration officials said Russian violations were the main reason for exiting the treaty. They said Russia has restricted flights over Moscow and Chechnya and near Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian restrictions also make it difficult to conduct observations in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland that is home to Russia's Baltic fleet, they said.

The U.S. notified other members of the treaty Thursday of its plans to withdraw, and it will formally pull out in six months.

Bell said the administration is "far more comfortable with wrecking and abandoning agreements than putting in the hard work necessary to fix them. They've made a veritable sport of breaking treaties."

"Critics thought Russia is gaining more from the treaty than we are — that doesn't track with reality. We were getting far more info on Russia than they were getting on us ever," she added. "Overall, the treaty was in our national security interests."

President Dwight Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and what was then called the Soviet Union allow aerial reconnaissance flights over each other's territory in 1955. At first, Moscow rejected the idea, but President George H.W. Bush revived it in 1989, and the treaty entered into force in January 2002. Currently, 34 nations have signed it; Kyrgyzstan has signed but not ratified it yet.

Bell called the agreement "a Republican legacy treaty."

"Trump is winnowing away the inheritance he got," an inheritance that "made his job easier, that makes this country safer," she said. "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."