Lawmaker sounds alarm over possible US withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 8, 2019
STUTTGART, Germany — A U.S. withdrawal from a pact that allows the Russian military to be monitored from the air would divide allies and empower Moscow, a top American lawmaker warned after what he said were reports that the Trump administration is considering quitting the Open Skies Treaty.
Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned in a letter Monday to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien that leaving the 17-year-old accord would be a “reckless action” and “only benefit Russia.”
“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,” Engel wrote in a letter prompted by reports that the White House plans to quit the deal. “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.”
Consultations with Congress and allies are essential before any attempt to pull out of the treaty or alter the terms of it, said Engel, a Democrat from New York. Engel did not elaborate on what reports said that the White House was leaning towards pulling out of the treaty. The Trump administration has not publicly stated that it intends to back out of the accord.
However, some Russia hawks aligned with the administration have said that the White House should withdraw. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called the treaty outdated and said it “favors Russia” in a brief statement last year.
The treaty, which took effect in 2002, allows the 34 countries that have signed it to conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the others’ territories to monitor military forces and activities. Member countries must allow a certain number of overflights of their territory each year.
The aim is to enhance military transparency between nations, but tension exists between the U.S. and Russia over how the agreement is being implemented.
Washington has complained that Moscow has restricted flights over Russia’s military hub in Kaliningrad, a small exclave squeezed between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. The U.S. has responded by putting restrictions on some Russian flights over U.S. territory.
Engel said he supports maintaining certain restrictions on Russian flights in response to Moscow denying access to Kaliningrad and to the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“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,” Engel wrote.
The treaty “continues to serve American national security interests and is particularly important as a check against further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he said. “The United States should prepare for the challenge that Russia presents – not abandon mechanisms that [are] an important tool in maintaining surveillance on Russia.”