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Closing The Open Skies


The Open Skies Treaty basically says to Russia, you show me yours, and I'll show you mine. For the past 17 years, that treaty has let Washington and Moscow take aerial photos openly of one another's military installations. Nearly all the NATO allies take part in the treaty, as does Ukraine. But there are increasing signs that the Trump administration is ready to close the American skies and bail out of this treaty. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was President Dwight Eisenhower who first proposed the U.S. and the Soviet Union fly over each other's territory and exchange their photos. The first President Bush revived that idea after the Soviet Union collapsed. And it was early in his son's administration when such flights actually began under the Open Skies Treaty. Its proponents say that even in the age of satellites, the treaty offers distinct advantages.

OLGA OLIKER: It gives you access to things that, even if you have a satellite network, you might not be able to see.

WELNA: That's Olga Oliker. She directs the Europe program at the International Crisis Group in Brussels. Via Skype, she says it's not just that surveillance planes can fly below clouds blocking the view of satellites. They also help prevent dangerous miscalculations.

OLIKER: It's a very useful way for the parties to be on the same page about who has what where.

WELNA: On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, the nominee for the empty ambassador's post in Moscow. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey pressed Sullivan about signs the U.S. may be pulling the plug on the Open Skies Treaty.


ED MARKEY: I have received information that before John Bolton resigned, President Trump may have made a decision to exit the Open Skies Treaty.

WELNA: Sullivan neither confirmed nor denied reports Trump had signed a document stating his intent to withdraw from the treaty.


JOHN SULLIVAN: I inquired as to whether we had withdrawn from the treaty and was assured we had not.

WELNA: If the U.S. were to pull out of the treaty, Sullivan added...


SULLIVAN: There would need to be substantial evidence to support the national security interests for withdrawal from that treaty.

STEVEN PIFER: That would be a mistake. It's really hard to see what we gain from withdrawing from treaty. We actually conduct many more flights over Russia than Russia conducts over the United States.

WELNA: Steven Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He says the U.S. has conducted nearly three times more surveillance flights over Russia than Russia has over the U.S. And Washington has done similar flights over Ukraine.

PIFER: It's a good way to monitor what Russian and Russian proxy forces are doing in Eastern Ukraine. And it's a good way to be supportive of Ukraine. And my guess is the Ukrainians would be unhappy at losing that.

WELNA: Still, opponents say Russia has repeatedly denied American overflights of key military installations. One such critic is Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton.


TOM COTTON: Perhaps rather than calling this the Open Skies Treaty, maybe it should be called the open skies over America and the closed skies over Russia treaty.

WELNA: Cotton was speaking at a recent confirmation hearing for Admiral Charles Richard, nominated to head the U.S. Strategic Command. Notably, Richard defended the treaty.


CHARLES RICHARD: We do derive some benefit from it, particularly with our allies. We would need to make the appropriate resource and operational commitments to utilize the full provisions of the treaty if we were to remain.

WELNA: That's because Moscow has modernized its surveillance planes. But Oliker says the U.S. has not.

OLIKER: If the United States stays on Open Skies, it needs to modernize or replace that aircraft. If it doesn't, then it really does stop U.S. getting any value from the treaty - not because the treaty has no value but because America's airplanes don't work.

WELNA: Pulling out of the Open Skies treaty would require six months notice. And that hasn't happened - not yet. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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