National Security

U.S. Mulls Withdrawal From Open Skies Treaty

Congress, Trump admin cite violations and spying by Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin / Getty Images

The Trump administration may withdraw the United States from a treaty with Russia that Moscow uses to conduct surveillance operations across the United States—and has repeatedly violated by denying the United States access to Russian airspace.

The Open Skies Treaty, which went into effect in 2002, permits reciprocal unarmed reconnaissance flights by the participants, which include the United States, Russia, and more than 30 European partners. In recent years, the treaty has caused consternation among the highest levels of the U.S. national security community due to Moscow’s repeated and increasingly severe violations, including deploying advanced technology that can be used to conduct espionage operations.

Senior administration officials told the Washington Free Beacon that the president is considering pulling out of the treaty due to Moscow's continued noncompliance.

The treaty was the subject of a fiery exchange this week between Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) and Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford, in which Cruz highlighted a broad consensus among past and present national security officials that Russia exploits the treaty to undermine U.S. national security.

"We are allowing Russia to fly over the United States to engage in reconnaissance on our major cities, our defense infrastructure, New York City, Washington, D.C., we're making ourselves more vulnerable," Cruz said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting this week. "And we're gaining, as I understand it, little to nothing because everything we would gain from the over flights we gain from our satellite technology, and Russia is not complying with the treaty. How is it possibly in our interest to benefit the Russian military by exposing our defenses while not gaining serious actionable intelligence on the other side?"

In October, Cruz and Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) introduced a resolution calling on the United States to withdraw from the treaty. The resolution hints that the treaty enables significant bad behavior from Russia that has not become public for classification reasons, and calls on the administration to declassify some of that information.

After the hearing concluded this week, the Trump administration told the Free Beacon that while it has not yet withdrawn from the treaty, the current situation will require corrective action by U.S. allies and Russia to prevent further erosion of American national security interests.

"The United States has not withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty. We continue to implement and are in full compliance with our obligations under the treaty, unlike Russia, which continues to violate its terms, including by recently denying treaty-compliant over flight missions," a senior administration official told the Free Beacon, speaking only on background about the developing diplomatic situation. "The United States supports effective international agreements that are fair and that ensure rights are protected and obligations are undertaken reciprocally."

"To this end we are undergoing a policy review of the Open Skies Treaty and value perspectives on the treaty's merits from our European allies and partners," the official disclosed. "The allies understand that more needs to be done to hold Russia accountable for its noncompliance under the treaty and that the United States is actively considering all options available under the treaty to achieve our national security objectives."

Cruz and Cotton, in comments to the Free Beacon about the state of play, affirmed their calls for the Trump administration to nix U.S. participation in the treaty.

"Even if Russia were not in open violation of the Open Skies Treaty, which it is, the U.S. should not be a part of an agreement that strengthens Russia's espionage capabilities," Cruz said. "I am continuing to urge the administration to withdraw from this accord."

Cotton said the treaty wasted American taxpayer dollars while jeopardizing security.

"Russia has breached the Open Skies Treaty for years by imposing limits on U.S. flights while suffering no such restrictions themselves," Cotton said. "The president ought to end this charade by withdrawing from the treaty and diverting the hundreds of millions of dollars it wastes to valuable military projects."