House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Raises Alarm That Trump May Axe The Open Skies Treaty

U.S. lawmakers have long argued that the Kremlin is exploiting the treaty, but proponents note it has been immensely beneficial to smaller countries.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Russia photo


The Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee has sent a letter to National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien saying he has seen reports that President Trump's Administration may be preparing to leave the Open Skies Treaty. This international agreement allows signatories to fly largely unrestricted aerial surveillance missions over each other's territory using approved aircraft and sensors and with monitors from the host country on board. The deal has drawn criticism from certain members of Congress and other U.S. government officials over the years who argue that Russia has been abusing its terms. Proponents have, in turn, highlighted the immense benefits it offers in terms of transparency and accountability, especially for smaller member states.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat Party Representative from New York, sent the missive to O'Brien on Oct. 7, 2019. In it, he vociferously defends the Treaty, which dates, in principle, back to 1955 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Soviets, however, rejected the proposal and it wasn't until 1989 that President George H.W. Bush signed the agreement. However, it wasn't until 2002 that the deal actually entered force. Today, there are 34 countries party to the treaty. The Open Skies Consultative Commission, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), manages its implementation, including the setting of annual quotas outlining how many times member countries are allowed to overfly each other.

"I am deeply concerned by reports that the Trump Administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and strongly urge you against such a reckless action," Engel writes. "Withdrawal risks dividing the transatlantic alliance and would further undermine America's reliability as a stable and predictable partner when it comes to European security."

You can read the full letter below:

House Foreign Affairs Committee
House Foreign Affairs Committee

Engel does not elaborate on what reports he is referring to or where he heard them. A cursory search of available news reporting on Open Skies does not yield any recent news reports that the treaty is in any kind of imminent jeopardy. The State Department did say that it couldn't comment on "deliberative matters" when The War Zone asked if there were any plans to leave the agreement or if the OSCE had been notified of the U.S. government's intention to do so. The language in Engel's letter would seem to suggest that he is also attempting to ascertain whether or not these reports are accurate and, if so, how close the Trump Administration is to actually pulling out of the deal.

"If the Administration is indeed considering a change of status on the Treaty, it must be part of a transparent process that includes a thorough interagency review and consultation with Congress, and that provides other signatories a clear understanding of your intentions. To my knowledge, the Administration has not held significant consultations with our allies and partners on this matter," the New York congressman continues. "Such consultations are a prerequisite to successfully navigate any major policy shift with the Treaty."

The ostensible objective of the Open Skies treaty is to enable signatories to monitor each other's military activities. The core idea is that if member states can monitor and verify what foreign militaries are doing, it is less likely that they will mistake certain maneuvers for preparations for some sort of hostile action. This then prevents that sort of confusion from escalating into an actual war. Member states, as well as the OSCE itself, have also employed the treaty's various provisions to monitor compliance with ceasefires and peace deals.

"Observation flights under the Treaty have generated additional information regarding Russian military action in Ukraine and provided a check on further Russian aggression there," Engel notes in his letter. "NATO allies and partners, and Ukraine in particular, have repeatedly stressed the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for their efforts to monitor Russia's military."

An Antonov An-30 that Ukraine uses for Open Skies missions., Bomberpilot via Wikimedia

However, other members of Congress, as well as U.S. military leaders, have, over the years, criticized Russia's activities, in particular. This has included complaints about the Russian government's flight restrictions over its Kaliningrad enclave, which sits on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, geographically separated from the rest of the country. The U.S. government imposed its own restrictions on the Kremlin's flights, notably over certain parts of Hawaii and Alaska, in response. There have also been accusations that Russia has been conducting unscheduled overflights over the United States with its Open Skies aircraft, but no evidence has emerged to support these assertions.

There have been claims that Russia has been looking to upgrade its Open Skies aircraft with improved cameras and other sensors that would allow them to gather imagery with potentially great granular intelligence value, something not in keeping with the spirit of the agreement, as well. The Trump Administration did briefly attempt to block certification of Russia's new Tu-214ON Open Skies aircraft, but relented in the end and the first one of these planes conducted a mission in the United States in April 2019. Despite initial reports that the Tu-214ONs might carry all-new sensors, including a synthetic aperture imaging radar, these planes have now entered service with the same upgraded digital camera package found on the Kremlin's older Tu-154M-LK-1 plane.

"Make no mistake, Congress is aware of some treaty implementation concerns regarding Russia. Russia continues to operate in unexpected ways. Therefore, I support the Administration's efforts to ensure full applicability of the Treaty to Kaliningrad and to the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and I support the restrictions put in place on Russian flights over the United States in response," Engel explains, not even mentioning the aircraft certification issue. "But it is clear that these implementation concerns do not rise to the level of material breach of the Treaty, an excuse that is being peddled as the potential reason for withdrawal."

It is worth noting that the dispute over flights over Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a multi-layered issue stemming from Russia's recognition of these breakaway parts of Georgia as independent countries. The Open Skies Treaty prevents flights within six miles of a non-member state. 

The Kremlin, therefore, says that member states cannot fly along this border to monitor Russian activity. However, the vast majority of the world, including all of the other Open Skies member states, as well as most international organizations, including the OSCE, do not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations. This has created an impasse wherein the Kremlin has been blocking flights in exactly the sort of place the treaty was designed to monitor based on a policy no other party to the deal recognizes. 

This became such an issue that Georgia refused to sign off on the annual flight quotas for 2018, which effectively brought the entire treaty to halt that year. The only Open Skies flight anywhere that year was a single extraordinary one that the United States flew over Ukraine under the auspices of the OSCE, which can be done under certain circumstances outside annual quotas.

The future of U.S. participation in the treaty had also appeared on the verge of collapse last year. "The Open Skies Treaty is out of date and favors Russia, and the best way forward is to leave it," Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and a particular critic of the treaty, said in a statement in September 2018.

The month before, Congress had passed the annual defense policy bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act, for the then-upcoming 2019 Fiscal Year, which blocked funds for upgrading the U.S. Air Force's Open Skies capabilities, including modernizing or replacing its aging OC-135B Open Skies planes, and the U.S. government's ability to take part in the Open Skies Consultative Commission unless President Trump took certain actions, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece

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Despite not knowing the source of Engel's concern that the Open Skies Treaty may again be on shaky ground, it is certainly possible that the critics of the deal may be looking to pursue Trump to pull out of the deal before any future NDAA might block him from doing so. The House's version of this bill for the 2020 Fiscal Year, which technically began on Oct. 1, explicitly seeks to ensure American participation in the agreement indefinitely. 

Proponents of the deal point out that it gives smaller countries immense leverage over larger, hostile neighbors. Ukraine's use of the treaty to monitor Russian activities along their shared border is a prime example, as Engel noted in his letter to O'Brien. The United States pulling out of the agreement could lead to Russia further flaunting its terms, or its complete collapse, which would leave American allies and partners without this valuable tool. 

In addition, if Russia is actually trying to get any true intelligence value out of these flights, it is a more notable reflection on how limited the Kremlin's other collection options, especially from space with spy satellites, actually are, in general. The limitations on the quality of imagery that countries can gather under Open Skies means that it is in no way comparable to even older American space-based capabilities.

If nothing else, continuing to be party to the treaty, any faults aside, is taking a stance in support of long-established international norms. It also denies the Kremlin another opportunity to erode key international arms control agreements, but escape any real repercussions for doing so.

For the time being, at least, the treaty is functioning as intended. The Georgians did not oppose the 2019 flight quotas and Open Skies missions have returned to normal levels this year

When it comes to continued U.S. participation in the agreement, it remains to be seen if Engel's letter is an indication that the Trump Administration is actually planning to withdraw from the deal in the near future or if the New York Congressman is seeking to head off that outcome before gains any real traction.

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