Michael KreponThe Open Skies Treaty Bites the Dust

Lyric of the week:

Who knows where the time goes?
And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then
The birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?
–Lyrics by Sandy Denny, preferred cover by Judy Collins

It’s not a fair match: Vladimir Putin is playing chess while Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo are playing checkers. The U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty suits Putin just fine. Russia will be without those bothersome ride-sharing overflights with U.S. pilots and Ukrainian and Georgian passengers. Washington has once more stiffed its friends and allies, while Russia looms larger in its “European home.”

Donald Trump has far surpassed all of his predecessors combined when it comes to walking away from agreements to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons. His administration’s announcement to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty marks the third agreement to be deep-sixed on his watch, after the Iran nuclear deal negotiated in the Obama administration and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiated in the Reagan administration. He has also walked away from the Arms Trade Treaty negotiated at the United Nations during the Obama administration.

The only other President to walk away from nuclear arms control agreements was George W. Bush, who withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and the Agreed Framework that blocked North Korea’s plutonium pathway to the Bomb.

Trump’s record three-peat of walking away from the accomplishments of his predecessors has not made American safer. As arms control unravels, nuclear dangers grow and U.S. ties with friends and allies fray. Not a good combination.

The Open Skies Treaty was first broached to Moscow in the Eisenhower administration and was summarily rejected by the Kremlin as legalized spying. President George H.W. Bush revived the idea after it was raised from the dead by Bob Blackwill. Bush 41 challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, who championed glasnost or openness, to put his money where his mouth was.

Gorbachev accepted the challenge and, low and behold, a treaty allowing cooperative aerial overflights using commercially available, unclassified technology became possible from Vancouver to Vladivostok. It took ten years for the Open Skies Treaty to enter into force because all of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union as well as former members of Warsaw Pact that wanted in and needed to be accommodated.

The Open Skies Treaty was a boon for newly independent states because it offered tangible as well as symbolic benefits. Under the terms of the Treaty, they could ride share with the United States over the Russian Federation and partake of the unclassified data collected on the overflights. Since entry into force in 2002, the 34 nations that belong to the Treaty have carried out over 1,500 cooperative overflights. Russia is obligated to accept up to 42 overflights per year.

Washington and Moscow both chafe at being overflown. Vladimir Putin no doubt welcomes being freed from U.S. overflights, just as he wished to be rid of the obligations imposed by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987. The INF Treaty broke the back of the Cold War nuclear arms competition, eliminating three categories of ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The Soviet General Staff went along with but never liked the INF Treaty’s “Zero Option.” The Russian General Staff felt the same way and had a sympathetic listener in Putin who agreed that there were targets in Europe and Asia that needed to be covered with ground-launched missiles with ranges prohibited by the Treaty. Russia began to flight test a ground-launched cruise missile of prohibited range capabilities toward the end of the George W. Bush administration, and then stiffed the Obama administration before the State Department went public with its finding of a material breach of the Treaty.

Putin wanted freedom of action but didn’t want to be the one to declare the INF Treaty null and void. Trump did this for him in 2019. Some of the same dynamics may be playing out with the Open Skies Treaty. Its obligations reflect the post-Cold War status quo, which is anathema to Putin. U.S. ride sharing was a particular affront.

Putin isn’t complying fully with the Open Skies Treaty, but unlike the INF Treaty, his violations are marginal and easily circumvented and nullified. Lately, Putin has added a new insult, designating an airfield in Crimea as a refueling spot for U.S. Open Skies aircraft.

The Trump administration also chafes at U.S. obligations under the Open Skies Treaty, arguing that Russian overflights provide targeting information for cyber warfare. But the United States is entitled to overflights with the same sensors as Russia. The difference is that Moscow has new aircraft and updated sensors employing commercially available, unclassified technology, while treaty opponents have dragged their feet on replacing the U.S. Open Skies aircraft and sensors. Even so, it’s hard to believe that the United States can’t learn with classified technology what Russia might learn from unclassified technology.

It’s immaterial now. Trump has once again done Putin’s bidding by withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, retreating still further behind his America First fortress. Putin wins by exiting the Treaty and shedding crocodile tears or by staying in and overflying Europe, including U.S. bases there, while Washington watches from the sidelines.

Pompeo issued a press release warning Moscow that it had six months to get back into compliance with the Open Skies Treaty or else the Trump administration would continue its retreat from Europe. That’s rich.

The demise of arms control began in earnest with the pairing of George W. Bush and Putin. Both shed treaties like old, ill-fitting apparel. Bush overreached badly on NATO expansion by seeking the entry of Georgia and Ukraine, and Putin pushed back hard once the Russian economy and Army rebounded. We’ve reached new lows with the toxic combination of Putin and Trump. Arms control is now on a ventilator.

Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that Tehran was honoring was a triumph of instinct over reason. Putin can’t be blamed for this one. Trump dispensed with an agreement that verifiably blocked all pathways to an Iranian Bomb and replaced it with… nothing.

The INF Treaty’s demise is on Putin. He violated the Treaty beyond repair. Trump gets a pass from me on this one. I completely understand the U.S. treaty exit, even though Putin was the net benefactor.

The Open Skies Treaty withdrawal is another case of shooting Uncle Sam in the foot and asking friends and allies to pay for the medical expenses. Treaty violations matter, even when they are slight. But why would Trump and Pompeo hand Russia a victory by exiting the Open Skies Treaty?

Note to readers: A shorter version of this opinion piece was published by Forbes on March 21st and can be found here:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkrepon/2020/05/21/the-open-skies-treaty-bites-the-dust/#b2e52d1fc78a


  1. Ross O'Connor (History)

    Can you unpack this sentence a bit more: “Putin wanted freedom of action but didn’t want to be the one to declare the INF Treaty null and void”. Why did he not want to be the one to withdraw? If he so disliked the treaty, why didn’t he withdraw years ago?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Putin didn’t like the prohibition, so he disregarded it.
      There was no need to withdraw first; this would blow his cover story that the missiles were permissible.

  2. Ross O'Connor (History)

    Question: If Trump leaving the Treaty is a win for Putin, why would he not leave first? What advantage accrued to Putin by not leaving first?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Putin wins when Trump leaves a treaty that US allies very much want the US to remain in.

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