Top Democrats warn against withdrawing from treaty that allows observation flights over Russia

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Four top defense and foreign policy Democrats in the House and Senate are raising the alarm about the possibility of President Trump withdrawing from a multilateral treaty they argue is a “critical element” of U.S. and European security.

At issue is the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the pact’s 34 signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other signatories.

{mosads}“We understand the administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and urge you not to do so. Withdrawing from the Treaty would be contrary to U.S. national security, and is apparently moving forward without any notice or consultation with Congress,” the lawmakers wrote Tuesday in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We understand agencies have been directed not even to discuss this matter with Congress.”

The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Asked what prompted the letter, a spokeswoman for the House Armed Services Committee highlighted former national security adviser John Bolton’s opposition to arms control agreements. Pressed on if anything has happened since Bolton’s ouster last month, the spokeswoman did not immediately reply.

Engel also sent his own letter Monday to national security adviser Robert O’Brien warning against an Open Skies withdrawal, citing unspecified “reports” that the administration is considering the move.

“We do not comment on Congressional correspondence. We continue to implement the treaty and are in full compliance with our obligations under this Treaty, unlike Russia,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.

Republicans for years have accused Russia of violating the treaty by blocking flights over some of its territory.

Russian President “Vladimir Putin has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement Tuesday. “The president should withdraw from the treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on Open Skies flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.”

But Democrats argue the treaty provides an invaluable tool to monitor Russian military capabilities.

The United States has also used the flights in recent years to show support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. In 2018, after Russia seized two Ukrainian naval ships transiting the Kerch Strait, the United States conducted an Open Skies flight over Ukraine to “reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine.” The U.S. military also conducted an Open Skies flight over Ukraine in 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Some Republicans, too, continue to support the treaty. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said in a statement Tuesday that “we get valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields on short notice” and that he has “yet to see a compelling reason to withdraw from Open Skies.”

U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal, also Tuesday morning retweeted Bacon’s support for the treaty as something that “helps build confidence & increase transparency.”

In their letter, Menendez, Reed, Engel and Smith argued that withdrawing from Open Skies “would be yet another gift from the Trump administration to Putin.”

“Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty would be perceived as casting further doubt on the status of the United States commitment to Ukraine’s security and would advance the Russian narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner in the region,” the lawmakers wrote, in an apparent reference to the House impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged U.S. aid to Ukraine to pressure its leaders to investigate political rival former Vice President Joe Biden.

The lawmakers also highlighted that this year’s House-passed version of the annual defense policy bill would prohibit funding to withdraw from Open Skies unless all other signatories agree Russia is in material breach.

The letter also slammed the administration for not consulting with Congress or U.S. allies about the issue. 

“If the president withdraws from this landmark treaty, it will fundamentally demean and devalue the United States commitment to treaties and other international obligations,” they wrote. “We request that you not move forward with any action to withdraw or impair the United States as a party to the treaty absent, at minimum, meaningful consultation with Congress.”

Updated on Oct. 9 at 8:20 a.m.

Tags Adam Smith Bob Menendez Donald Trump Eliot Engel Jack Reed Joe Biden John Bolton Mark Esper Mike Pompeo Tom Cotton Vladimir Putin

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