The Open Skies Treaty is easy to mock. It was first proposed by President Eisenhower and wasn’t negotiated until Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Treaty allows cooperative overflights by planes carrying unclassified sensors at a time of sophisticated photo-reconnaissance satellites. So why bother?
There are four good reasons. First, because not all of Washington’s friends and allies operate highly sophisticated satellites, and Open Skies allows for ride- and data-sharing. Second, because information from open sources is now an essential complement to classified data. Third, because the Open Skies Treaty fosters cooperation with friends and allies. And fourth, it’s part of the safety net that keeps U.S.-Russia relations from falling off a cliff.
A good example of the utility of Open Skies came in December 2018 when the United States overflew eastern Ukraine with Canadian, French, German, Romanian, British and Ukrainian observers on board. The flight took place after a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea. The Defense Department publicized this overflight – a rare occurrence – issuing a statement that, “The timing of this flight is intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations.”
Donald Trump has reportedly signed a document withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. This was a longstanding objective of former National Security Adviser John Bolton and his top aide for Russia, Tim Morrison, who remains on staff and is scheduled to be questioned by the House Intelligence Committee this week about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Trump’s decision on Open Skies is unrelated to his temporary withholding of military assistance to Ukraine while seeking help against a political opponent. But both actions are injurious to U.S.-Ukraine ties. And both lend credence to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s memorable retort to Donald Trump’s October 16th meltdown in the White House – that “All roads with you lead to Putin.”
Trump is now unfiltered. The guardrails are gone. The advisers whose company he now keeps are less able or willing to save him from himself. For particulars, look no further than the puerile and embarrassing letter Trump sent to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan after apparently giving him the green light to crush the Syrian Kurds.
If Senator Mitt Romney’s speculation is correct – that Erdogan told Trump that he was crossing the Syrian border and that it would be wise for U.S. troops to get out of his way – then the United States is in serious trouble. If Turkey, a NATO ally, can dictate terms, it’s open season.
Why does Putin benefit time and again from Trump’s decisions? Why do so many roads lead to Putin? That Putin sought Trump’s election and interfered to try to produce this result is incontestable. But their relationship is opaque. All we know for sure is that it is toxic to U.S. democracy and national security interests.
There are multiple reasons why so many roads lead to Putin. Putin benefits when Trump belittles and weakens U.S. alliances. Is this a direct favor to Putin, an indirect benefit that comes from Trump’s natural inclinations, or both? Similarly, Putin benefits from Trump’s withdrawal from arms control treaties and other agreements, but they are several plausible explanations for these tear downs.
Trump finds it satisfying to tear down Barack Obama’s achievements. This might be reason enough for him, and not because he wants to help Putin out. Trump has no sense of the dynamics of international security, so when he’s told that Russia is violating an agreement, that might suffice; he doesn’t understand that an agreement that Putin violates could still serve U.S. national security interests more than Russia’s.
Those who dislike treaties on ideological grounds have never had a more pliable instrument to do their bidding. The case of the Open Skies Treaty comes on the heels of his withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Open Skies strengthens U.S. ties to Ukraine, the Baltic States, and all of Central and Eastern Europe. The Treaty’s ride- and data-sharing provisions, purposefully executed, advance bilateral relations with every state concerned about having Vladimir Putin as a neighbor. The biggest loser from the death of the Open Skies Treaty, besides the United States, would be Ukraine.
In this instance, Ukraine’s injury would be due to Bolton and Morrison rather than Rudy Giuliani and his associates, but injuries are compounded, regardless of motive. If the State and Defense departments and the National Security Council staff were in good hands, they would all strongly advise Trump against tearing up the Open Skies Treaty.
It’s not too late to prevent adding further injury to Ukraine and to use the Open Skies Treaty to shore up U.S. relations with Vladimir Putin’s other neighbors.