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Trump Administration Confirms U.S. Is Leaving Open Skies Surveillance Treaty

Open Skies would be the third major international military pact Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from. This photo from 2007 shows Czech soldiers inspecting cameras on a U.S. Boeing plane at a military airbase in Pardubice, Czech Republic, as part of the agreement.
Alexandra Mlejnkova
Open Skies would be the third major international military pact Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from. This photo from 2007 shows Czech soldiers inspecting cameras on a U.S. Boeing plane at a military airbase in Pardubice, Czech Republic, as part of the agreement.

President Trump's administration will give official notice of the U.S.'s intent to exit the Open Skies treaty, officials announced Thursday. The 34-nation agreement allows the U.S., Russia and other countries to fly their aircraft over each other's territory – increasing transparency and reducing the chances for perilous miscalculations.

"Russia didn't adhere to the treaty, so until they adhere, we will pull out," Trump said, adding that there is "a very good chance" to reach a new deal. "We're going to pull out, and they're going to come back and want to make a deal."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saidthat "it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in America's interest to remain a party to the Treaty on Open Skies."

Pompeo accused Russia of repeatedly violating the treaty and using it to further its expansion goals by refusing to allow flights over "Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia" and asserting control over an airfield in Crimea. Echoing the president, he also suggested the U.S. might remain in the agreement if Russia changes its approach.

"Effective six months from tomorrow, the United States will no longer be a party to the Treaty," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. "We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the Treaty."

The move quickly drew criticism from Democratic members of Congress.

Trump's plan "directly harms our country's security and breaks the law in the process," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Engel cited a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act from late 2019, which requires the secretaries of State and Defense to notify Congress at least 120 days before a formal notice is sent to treaty depositories about an intent to leave Open Skies.

Calling the treaty a "pillar of stability, transparency, and security for the United States and our European allies," Engel said Open Skies is critical to the New START Treaty and other arms control measures, and he said Russia will conduct flights over NATO and American bases "with or without our participation in Open Skies."

Russia is awaiting a full explanation of the U.S. accusations, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in an interview with Russian TV. She added that the treaty includes mechanisms for ensuring compliance and presenting complaints – and that the U.S. will likely use diplomatic channels as well.

The Russian ministry republished a list of its own grievances on Thursday, saying the U.S. has put a number of new Open Sky restrictions in place since Trump took office.

The Open Skies treaty has been in effect since 2002. The idea of allowing other countries' surveillance aircraft to conduct flyovers was first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower, early in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But a deal didn't gain traction until after the Soviet republic collapsed; it was signed in 1992 and took effect 10 years later.

"It gives you access to things that, even if you have a satellite network, you might not be able to see," Olga Oliker, director of the Europe program at the International Crisis Group in Brussels, told NPR last November. "It's a very useful way for the parties to be on the same page about who has what where."

The treaty includes a number of stipulations that give host countries a level of control over the flights in their airspace, from designating which planes and airports can be used to flight distances. It also allows inspections of surveillance equipment. The signatories include most of America's NATO allies and Ukraine.

Noting that many U.S. allies in Europe want to keep the treaty in full force, Pompeo said, "If not for the value they place on the OST, we would likely have exited long ago."

If the U.S. does exit, Open Skies would be the third major international military pact Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from, coming after the president spiked the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.

Critics of the treaty say they believe Russia gets more out of it than the U.S. does.

"Today the president has taken another positive step to end America's dependence on dysfunctional and broken treaties," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a statement about Trump's plan.

Cotton says the treaty has become technically defunct and outdated. And he added that by leaving the agreement, the U.S. won't have to pay "nearly a quarter-billion dollars in recapitalization money for our OC-135 Open Skies Aircraft fleet."

As NPR's David Welna has reported, Moscow has modernized Russia's surveillance planes. But the U.S. has not, according to Oliker of the International Crisis Group.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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