- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Trump administration and House Democrats are clashing on another foreign policy front, with the fate of a landmark international treaty that allows U.S. intelligence flights over Russia hanging in the balance.

President Trump has reportedly signed off on the decision to pull the U.S. out of the Open Skies Treaty, a 34-country pact that was designed to lower international tensions by allowing treaty members to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights over each others’ territory to collect data on military forces and activities. The treaty was negotiated in 1992 and went into effect a decade later.

Conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, and private Russia hawks have pushed for the withdrawal, which has not been announced publicly, saying the Kremlin was not complying with the overflight provisions and was gaining a major intelligence advantage over the U.S. military.

But a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday heard some strong arguments for staying in the treaty, at a time when Mr. Trump has pulled out of an intermediate-range arms pact with Russia and put on ice talks with the Kremlin on extending the 2010 New Start nuclear weapons pact set to expire next year.

“The Open Skies Treaty is the most expansive conventional arms control regime providing transparency and predictability that benefit our security and that of our allies,” Jon Brook Wolfsthal, a director at the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former top security adviser to President Obama, told Tuesday’s hearing.

The Open Skies Treaty “is one of the few remaining tools we have that we can and must build upon to address this urgent need for crisis management,” Mr. Wolfsthal said.

However, critics have stepped up their criticisms of the pact after Russia last year restricted U.S. surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, the strategic Russian military enclave that sits between Lithuania and Poland. The U.S. already unhappy over what it said were sophisticated new monitoring sensors being used by Moscow, responded by prohibiting Russian flights over Hawaii and several Air Force bases.

The conservative National Review in an editorial this month strongly endorsed withdrawing from the treaty, arguing that Russia has violated the letter and spirit of the agreement and gets far more out of the treaty than does the U.S.

“The handwringing is overdone,” the magazine argued. “Whatever purpose it used to serve, the costs of the treaty to the United States now outweigh the benefits.”

But some pro-arms control Democrats are already moving to preempt another treaty renunciation by the White House.

Senior national security Democrats in Congress, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Bob Menendez of New Jersey penned a joint letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denouncing plans to withdraw from the pact.

Such a move, they said, “would be yet another gift from the Trump administration” to the Kremlin.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, California Democrat, on Monday announced new legislation that would prohibit Mr. Trump from unilaterally withdrawing the U.S. from the Open Skies Treaty.

But Mr. Cotton and fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas introduced new legislation last month that would prohibit funding through the annual defense policy bill to participate in the agreement.

U.S. participation in the treaty “enhances Russia’s surveillance of major American cities, strengthens Russia’s espionage capabilities, and costs the United States millions of dollars,” Mr. Cruz said.

Citing testimony from top U.S. military officials about Russia’s flouting of the accord, Mr. Cotton called the agreement a “flawed accord … which invites Russia to fly spy planes over our houses while Putin violates the treaty by restricting U.S. flights over Russia.”

Former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a longtime skeptic of multilateral arms treaties, was a leading voice against the Open Skies treaty inside the Trump administration before his abrupt ouster in September. It was his office that drafted the order Mr. Trump has signed setting the stage for withdrawing from the treaty.

Despite Republican opposition, Mr. Wolfsthal said “killing the [treaty] would go against the security interests and stated preferences of our allies, and would make it harder not easier to confront Russian behavior.”

Open Skies supporters note that Ukraine has invoked the pact to monitor Russian troop movements along its eastern border, where they are providing support to pro-Russian separatists battling the central government in Kiev.

Mr. Engel, a New York Democrat, warned Tuesday that “withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests. … 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.”

Treaty supporters also argue America’s European allies could be unnerved by another U.S. repudiation of a major multilateral security pact. All but two of the European Union’s 29 member countries have joined the agreement and when the U.S. conducts intelligence flights, European allies are often brought along.

“We get a lot more out of it then the other side does,” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said in an interview. “Not only in terms of finding out more about what’s happening in Russia, but it’s also something that our allies in Europe who we’re having a lot of problems with really like.”

He acknowledged that Russia also benefits from the treaty. Although Moscow doesn’t always adhere to the agreement fully, “for the most part they do.”

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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