The United States will withdraw from a third major security agreement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Thursday.
The Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992, allows its 34 signatories — including the United States and Russia — to conduct trust-building surveillance flights over each others’ territory to collect information on military activities and provide reassurance that no one is planning a major offensive against another.
But American officials have long complained that Russia has failed to comply with the deal, forbidding overflights of key strategic regions and military exercises — and privately, that Moscow is using its flights to collect sensitive information on American infrastructure to plan potential attacks.
The U.S.“cannot remain in arms control agreements that are violated by the other side, and that are actively being used not to support but rather to undermine international peace and security,” Pompeo wrote in a lengthy statement announcing the United States’ intention to withdraw from the accord, effective in six months. Russia will be formally notified on Friday.
Pompeo both cited Russian restrictions on flights and claimed Moscow has used the treaty as “a tool to facilitate military coercion.”
“Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions,” Pompeo said. “Rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency, Russia has, therefore, weaponized the Treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”
Pompeo’s statement leaves open the possibility that the United States might “reconsider” its withdrawal “should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”
The withdrawal is likely to further rankle European allies — including NATO allies, which use the treaty to conduct critical overflights of Europe’s vulnerable eastern flank and will meet tomorrow to discuss the fate of the deal. Although they will likely remain in the treaty, Russia may cut off their access following the U.S. departure.
If not for the value its European allies place on the treaty, Pompeo wrote, the United States “would likely have exited long ago.”
“We are not willing…to perpetuate the Treaty’s current problems of Russian-engendered threat and distrust simply in order to maintain an empty facade of cooperation with Moscow,” he said.
The move was cheered by conservatives, who have long expressed frustration with U.S. arms control agreements that they consider unfairly skewed against American interests.
“Today the president has taken another positive step to end America’s dependence on dysfunctional and broken treaties,” tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence.”
It was also quickly met with deep disapproval from former intelligence and national security officials, as well as Democratic members of Congress, who argue that it provided the United States with valuable intelligence on Russian activity and was an important trust-building mechanism.
“This is insane,” former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted.
Open Skies is the third major security accord that Trump has abandoned. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal — which was not a formal treaty — in 2018 and pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, arguing then as now that Russia was violating its terms.
The Open Skies treaty is somewhat less significant. Signed in 1992, it entered into force in 2002. It did not govern satellite imagery, which is the biggest source for intelligence-gathering. But it provided a measure of reassurance and stability, and was particularly welcomed by U.S. allies who lack sophisticated aerial reconnaissance capabilities of their own.
The withdrawal raises the spectre of American withdrawal from the New START Treaty, the sole remaining nuclear-arms-control accord between the United States and Russia, set to expire shortly after the 2021 inauguration. That agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of deployed nuclear missiles held by both the United States and Russia.
The Trump administration has said for a year that it would not renew the deal unless China agreed to join, a possibility that analysts argue and some State Department officials privately say is utterly fanciful. China has rejected the idea, and the massive difference in the size of its deployed arsenal compared to the United States and Russia — 300 or so compared to 1,550 each in Russia and the United States — raises practical difficulties.
The United States and Russia have agreed to begin talks on New START and “the expectation is that the Chinese will be at the table,” Trump’s special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, announced on Thursday afternoon at a Hudson Institute event.
“The New START treaty suffers from serious verification inadequacies, in my view,” Billingslea said. “I can’t stress enough how central to our thinking is verification and compliance.”
Some officials have reportedly floated the idea of a short-term extension to allow more time to negotiate with China, but it’s not clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would accept those terms. A short-term extension is also not part of the original text of the agreement, which permits only one five-year extension.
Asked about the fate of the negotiations if China cannot be brought to the table, Billingslea replied, “I’m just not going to speculate that at this early stage of the negotiations.”
Pompeo in his statement pinned the U.S. withdrawal on Moscow, implicitly rebutting criticism that the Trump administration is seeking broadly to dismantle the international arms control framework.
“Make no mistake: Russia alone bears responsibility for these developments, and for the continued erosion of the arms control architecture,” he said. “We remain committed to effective arms control that advances U.S., ally, and partner security.”
Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.