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Possible U.S. exit from Open Skies Treaty

Four senior Democrats in the U.S. Congress warned the Trump administration may withdraw from a treaty for mutual unarmed surveillance over 34 nations.

WASHINGTON (AN) — Four senior Democrats in the U.S. Congress warned on Tuesday that President Donald Trump's administration may withdraw from a 2002 treaty that permits mutual unarmed surveillance flights over 34 nations including Russia and the United States.

Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Reps. Eliot Engel of New York and Adam Smith of Washington state wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to strongly oppose any move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

The lawmakers said that for the past 17 years, the legally binding treaty has allowed the United States and its allies to obtain valuable information about Russian military activities, including in Ukrainian territory, while promoting transparency and trust among countries.

“Not only is there no case for withdrawal on the grounds of national security, there has been no consultation with the Congress or with our allies about this consequential decision," they wrote in the letter.

"Any action by this administration to withdraw from critical international treaties without the approval of the Senate is deeply concerning,” they wrote. “If the President withdraws from this landmark Treaty, it will fundamentally demean and devalue the United States commitment to treaties and other international obligations.”

Trump has made his animosity to international organizations and treaties well known, withdrawing the United States from a series of United Nations and non-U.N. agencies and accords since taking office in January 2017.

Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have argued for U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars of military spending towards combat buildups. Other opponents of the treaty have said Russia is cheating by restricting some U.S. overflights.

The Democrats, however, contend that exiting from this treaty would play into Russia's hands and undermine confidence in Americans' commitment to Ukraine, particularly since U.S. surveillance conducted under the treaty produced satellite images showing Russian forces invaded Ukrainian territory.

They noted the United States carried out an "extraordinary" flight — one that is considered outside of a routine treaty flight — under the treaty in December 2018, after Russia opened fire on and seized three Ukrainian navy ships and their crews in the Black Sea.

Withdrawing from it now "would advance the Russian narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner in the region," they wrote.

In February of this year, the U.S. conducted its first routine Open Skies surveillance mission over Russia since 2017. A month later, Russia conducted routine surveillance flights over the western United States, according to the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.

'A key visual aid'

The treaty was signed in 1992 under then-Republican President George W. Bush's administration, a full decade before it gained enough ratifications to take effect in 2002. It essentially lets nations keep tabs on each other in the name of transparency and trust-building, particularly among NATO members.

The Open Skies Consultative Commission, or OSCC, carries out the Open Skies Treaty. The commission is made up of representatives from each of the treaty's 34 member nations. The OSCC meets at the headquarters of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, in Vienna.

The treaty also calls for a review conference to be held every five years. The first one took place in 2005, and the second, chaired by the United States, was held in 2010. The third one, chaired by Belarus, was held in 2015. A fourth one is slated to be held next year, in June — about five months ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

The treaty's member nations can carry out unarmed surveillance flights on short notice throughout the territory of other member nations. The OSCE has called it "one of the most effective politico-military instruments in the OSCE region." The genesis of the idea goes back to the 1950s Republican administration of President Dwight Eisenhower administration.

After Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, complained about Russia cheating on the treaty, Trump's former defense secretary, James Mattis, told her in a May 2018 letter that “it is in our nation’s best interest to remain a party" to the treaty.

"The Open Skies Treaty is a military-to-military engagement tool that provides signatories with the ability to gather information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them," said Mattis in the letter.

"This contributes to greater transparency and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region, which benefits both the United States and our allies and partners," he wrote. "The treaty also produces imagery that is verifiable and unclassified, which allows for its use in international or bilateral fora. For example, in 2014, treaty imagery was a key visual aid during U.S. engagement with allies and Russia regarding the military crisis in Ukraine."