The Open Skies Treaty Keeps America And Russia Honest About Their Weapons. Donald Trump Just Canceled It
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The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has announced it will pull the United States out of a key arms-verification treaty. The move could undermine U.S. national security, experts warned.
The 1992 Open Skies Treaty allows the 34 signatory states—including Russia, the United States and most European states—to fly unarmed camera- and radar-equipped planes along pre-negotiated routes over each other’s territory, all for the purposes of monitoring military activities and verifying compliance with other treaties.
The Trump administration plans to inform Russia of the withdrawal this week, The New York Times NYT reported. Administration officials have claimed that Russia’s behavior has rendered Open Skies moot.
While it’s true that Moscow has limited how closely Open Skies planes can fly over the Russia’s heavily-armed Baltic exclave Kaliningrad, it’s important to note that Washington has imposed reciprocal limits on Russia’s own Open Skies flights over Hawaii, which is home to major U.S. military installations.
“Russia has violated the treaty, but Washington has responded proportionately within the treaty,” the Washington, D.C. Brookings Institution pointed out.
Worse, Republicans in Congress have described Russia’s Open Skies flights over the United States as “spying,” even though Open Skies affords the United States the same degree of access to Russian air space that Russia has to the U.S. air space.
Despite Russian and U.S. intransigence, America’s allies strongly support Open Skies. Western governments tend to share between themselves the intelligence resulting from treaty flights.
“There are no governments, allies or not, who think the United States needs to withdraw, or should withdraw, from the Open Skies Treaty,” said Steffan Watkins, an independent security expert and imagery analyst.
According to one arms-control expert, Trump and his supporters object to Open Skies not because of the treaty’s particular functions or any specific Russian violations. Rather, they object because … it’s a treaty.
“This has nothing to do with the Open Skies Treaty and everything to do with the fact that the contemporary [Republican Party] sees international agreements as a stain on our sovereignty,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
The Trump administration previously withdrew the United States from major international accords aimed at controlling global carbon emissions, limiting Iran’s nuclear program and banning land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
“The decision to pull out Open Skies is an ill-informed and counterproductive move that is at odds with the views of the intelligence community, the military and U.S. allies,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists.
As with those withdrawals, quitting Open Skies could backfire for the United States, Kristensen said. “It will make it harder to monitor Russian activities and, especially when seen as the last item on the growing list of discarded treaties and agreements, a worrisome expression of the Trump administration undermining of the international order.”
“If this treaty collapses, the countries that suffer the most are our allies, not the Russians,” Lewis explained. “Our allies and partners are the ones who will lose out. But that’s also a theme with this administration, treating our allies like marks to be shaken down for money instead of partners with shared interests.”
“Trump treats our allies like he treats his wives and mistresses—as something to be used and discarded rather than a partner in building a shared future,” Lewis said.
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