The Trump administration has taken steps toward leaving a nearly three-decade-old agreement designed to reduce the risk of war between Russia and the West by allowing both sides to conduct reconnaissance flights over one another’s territories, U.S. officials said.
President Trump has signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw the U.S. from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, two U.S. officials said.
The White House wouldn’t respond to questions about whether the administration has decided to pull out of the treaty. One of the officials said discussions were continuing.
“Anything is possible with this president,” the official said.
Allied nations, including Ukraine, are pushing to preserve the Open Skies Treaty, which was designed to boost confidence that countries aren’t planning an attack. The nations say any disputes over Russian compliance should be addressed through negotiations.
“Open Skies Treaty is one of the basic international treaties in the field of European security and arms control,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal Friday. “Ukraine is interested in maintaining and implementing this Treaty.”
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Critics within the administration allege that Russia has interfered with American monitoring flights while using its missions to gather intelligence in the U.S.
In a previously unreported episode, Russia prevented the U.S. and Canada from carrying out a flight near a military exercise in central Russia on Sept. 20, other U.S. officials said.
According to the U.S.’s account, Russian officials said the airspace had been closed because of exercise activity and travel by important Russian government officials in the area. The U.S. tried to adjust its flight plan to meet Russian assertions that the flight could jeopardize safety, and claims the denial was an excuse to block access, the U.S. officials say.
“We continue to implement and are in full compliance with our obligations under the treaty, unlike Russia,” a Trump administration official said, declining to discuss the future of the pact.
The Russian Embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Russian officials have previously said they fully comply with the treaty and have accused the U.S. of jeopardizing the agreement.
The origins of the Open Skies treaty can be traced to 1955, when President Eisenhower proposed the two sides conduct surveillance missions over each other’s territory. That proposal didn’t yield an agreement.
As the Cold War drew to a close, the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated the Open Skies Treaty among former adversaries. Thirty-four countries have joined the agreement, including the U.S., Canada, European nations, Russia and Ukraine.
In May 2018, then-Defense Secretary
wrote to Congress that it was “in our Nation’s best interest” to stay in the treaty despite the alleged Russian violations.
In December 2018, the U.S. carried out an Open Skies flight over eastern Ukraine soon after Russia attacked Ukrainian ships in Black Sea. The flight, which was requested by Ukraine, carried Ukrainian, British, Romanian, German, French and Canadian observers, according to the Pentagon, which said it was intended to reaffirm its commitment to Ukraine’s security.
Former national security adviser
however, is a longtime skeptic of arms-control agreements who has challenged Russia’s claims of compliance. Before he left his post, he urged Mr. Trump to sign the document signaling the U.S. intention to withdraw, two of the U.S. officials said.
Under the treaty, a nation that wants to withdraw must provide formal notification to other members at least six months in advance. Mr. Trump’s signing of the document was previously reported by the Slate website. Mr. Bolton didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Amid the debate, proponents of the accord say there are ways to respond to purported Russian violations short of leaving the treaty, such as restricting the access of Russian flights over the U.S.
The State Department in an August report said Russia set limits in 2014 on the distance U.S. flights could travel over its heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave. Russia also restricted flights over Russian-occupied areas of Georgia in 2010. It later relaxed those constraints in 2018, though that issue hasn’t been definitively resolved, the State Department said.
Reacting to Russia’s imposition of limits on flights over Kaliningrad, U.S. officials in 2017 announced restrictions on the distance of Russian flights over Hawaii and restricted Russian planes from accessing some U.S. bases.
“I would try to fix it,” said Philip Breedlove, the retired Air Force general who served as the top North Atlantic Treaty Organization military commander from 2013 to 2016, referring to the alleged Russian violations. “But I would play hardball to get there.”
The agreement has been eyed skeptically by some U.S. intelligence officials who say it has enabled Russia to fill in gaps in their intelligence about the U.S.’s national security infrastructure—a concern that officials say figured in the current debate.
Mr. Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. military’s Strategic Command, which oversees nuclear forces, declined to say during his Thursday confirmation hearing if he thought the U.S. should leave the treaty.
“It is important in any treaty or agreement for all parties to comply,” Vice Adm. Charles Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We do derive some benefit from it, particularly with our allies.”
Tim Morrison, the top National Security Council official on Russia and Europe who has played an influential role in the administration’s arms-control deliberations, is among the accord’s critics, officials say.
Mr. Morrison has been in the spotlight recently amid the House impeachment inquiry.
In testimony last week, U.S. envoy Bill Taylor described Mr. Morrison as an aide who kept him informed about attempts to condition security aid to Ukraine on a commitment by the country’s president to investigate Hunter Biden.
Mr. Morrison didn’t respond to a request for comment.
With the U.S. participation in the treaty hanging in the balance, Congress has weighed in.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) has urged the administration to withdraw because
has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent Mr. Bolton’s successor, Robert O’Brien, an Oct. 7 letter arguing that withdrawal would deprive the U.S. of a tool to monitor Russian military deployments.
While there have been compliance concerns with Russia, Mr. Engel wrote, “they do not rise to the level of material breach of the Treaty, an excuse that is being peddled as the potential reason for withdrawal.”
Mr. O’Brien hasn’t responded, a congressional aide said.
—Brett Forrest in Kyiv contributed to this article.
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