When only one side of an agreement complies, and the other side uses the agreement as a weapon, then symbolism and naivete replace mutually beneficial compliance. And so it is with the Open Skies Treaty. It should come as no surprise that President Trump — not given to embracing symbolic agreements (no self-respecting businessman would) — decided to ditch that treaty. This action comes on the heels of an on-again, off-again testy relationship between Russia and the United States.
Liberty Nation correspondents have followed the lukewarm U.S.-Russia affiliation for some time. When Russia engages in gray-zone warfare through a concentrated disinformation campaign and puts U.S. infrastructure at risk with cyberattacks, the United States cannot just acquiesce. Consequently, continuing in a treaty with Russia designed to establish trust seems at best paradoxical and at worst a sham.
Proposed initially to Moscow by President Dwight Eisenhower in July 1955 as a trust-building initiative that would allow reconnaissance flights over each other’s country, it was summarily rejected by the Soviet Union. The Kremlin believed the agreement to be a ploy to facilitate U.S. spying on the Warsaw Pact nations. Fast forward 35 years. President George H.W. Bush revived the idea, and negotiations began in 1990 between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Typical of the glacial pace of international agreements, it would be another 12 years before the Treaty on Open Skies would be signed by 34 countries, including the United States and Russia. In short, the treaty allows each of the signers, or “state-parties,” to fly over the nations of other signatories. The subject country is obligated to allow a defined number of overflights annually. But there has been a slight glitch. Russia has refused to allow overflights by the United States and allies who are signers of the treaty. On the other hand, the United States is put at risk by complying with Russian requests without reciprocal flights.
In The Washington Times, Lauren Meier quotes U.S. Secretary of State Mike in her article “NATO Allies Seeking Russia’s Return to Compliance of Open Skies Treaty”:
“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 continued, “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.”
For a long time, according to David Sanger in The New York Times, the United States has objected to Russia violating the Open Skies agreement by prohibiting flights over areas of the country where the U.S. intelligence community believes nuclear-capable missiles are placed. These missiles would put Europe in jeopardy. Additionally, Russia has prevented overflight of major Russian war games, like Zapad 2017, a large exercise of Russian conventional capability in and around the Baltics.
Sanger underscored U.S. dissatisfaction with Russia’s persistent Open Skies violations, quoting President Trump’s new arms negotiator, Marshall Billingslea: “You reach a point at which you need to say enough is enough. The United States cannot keep participating in this Treaty if Russia is going to violate it with impunity.”
NATO is not pleased with Russia’s failure to comply. As Meier noted, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “Russia’s ongoing selective implementation has undermined the Open Skies Treaty.”
Consequently, this month the Trump administration announced beginning the process for the formal withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies. Predictably there was a capacious outcry from the anti-administration gallery.
According to a recent article in Forbes, Hans Kristensen, an expert in nuclear issues and member of the Federation of American Scientists, said, “The decision to pull out [of] 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.” This statement is silly on its face. The United States has other means of gathering intelligence, such as very capable satellites that provide photo surveillance with excellent resolution that is shared with, for example, the NATO Intelligence Fusion Center, established in 2006, which provides an intelligence forum for all NATO allies.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in the same Forbes article, provided an expansive and baseless assertion that ascribed a motive to the administration’s withdrawal. Lewis opined, “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.” Oh, it’s a fact, is it? Do you have evidence that anyone in the Republican Party or the administration said these words? If not, this intellectually anemic criticism is nothing more than groundless assertions.
None of the objections to the United States pulling out of the treaty addresses the “fact” that Russia fails to comply with the Open Skies Treaty, uses the agreement to put U.S. infrastructure at risk, and shows no inclination to change its behavior.
When faced with Russian intransigence on deals made in good faith by the signatories, then of what possible value are they? International accords are significant when all participants comply with terms and conditions and benefit equally. When this is not the case, the agreements are no longer of value. President Trump is right to walk away from the Treaty on Open Skies.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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