- The US is withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, an international pact that allows countries to conduct observation flights over the territory of other member states on short notice to promote transparency.
- The US has accused Russia of violating the treaty by restricting flights and not upholding its obligations.
- In a 2018 letter, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that he felt the treat was “in our Nation’s best interest” despite Russian violations.
- European allies and partners, including France and Germany, issued a joint statement Friday expressing “regret” at the US decision to withdraw.
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European allies expressed “regret” Friday over the US plans to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an agreement that former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis once argued was in “our Nation’s best interest” because it allowed the US to keep a close eye on malign Russian activities.
France and Germany, along with eight other NATO allies and partners, said in a joint statement Friday: “We regret the announcement by the US Government of its intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.”
The US intends to submit a notice of withdrawal Friday, and in six months, “the United States will no longer be a party” to the 1992 treaty allowing its 34 signatory states to conduct short-notice observation flights over one another’s territory to monitor military activities.
The Pentagon said Thursday that “after careful consideration, including input from Allies and key partners, it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in the United States’ best interest to remain a party to this Treaty when Russia does not uphold its commitments.”
US allies and partners acknowledged in their statement Friday that they “share [US] concerns about implementation of the Treaty clauses by Russia.”
The US has considered Russia to be in violation of the treaty since 2017 because Russia has denied flights that should to be permitted under the treaty’s provisions.
“Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty, so until they adhere, we will pull out,” President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday.
The US has accused Russia of restricting flights over Kaliningrad, preventing the observation of large military exercises, and using the treaty to support its propaganda efforts and justify its aggression.
Russia has previously argued that the US has violated the treaty as well, criticizing the US in 2018 for refusing to certify a Russian aircraft for treaty inspections without explanation.
In May 2018, Mattis wrote a letter to Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer explaining that “despite Russia’s violations of its obligations under the Treaty, it is my view that it is in our Nation’s best interest to remain a party to the Open Skies Treaty.”
He said that “Treaty imagery was a key visual aid during US engagement with allies and Russia regarding the military crisis in Ukraine” in 2014.
The former secretary of defense resigned from his position late in 2018 in part over US abandonment of its allies.
“We will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security,” US allies in Europe said Friday. “We reaffirm that this treaty remains functioning and useful.”
US withdrawal is not necessarily a done deal, as the US State Department said Thursday that it might “reconsider” its decision if Russia returns to “full compliance” with the treaty.
The Department of Defense stressed though that “in this era of Great Power Competition, we will strive to enter in to agreements that benefit all sides and that include parties who comply responsibly with their obligations.”
The Open Skies Treaty is not the first agreement the Trump administration has pulled out of in response to alleged Russian violations.
Last year, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty limiting the development and fielding of ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or 310 and 3,100 miles. The US conducted its first test of a previously banned missile last August.