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Keep American Skies Open to Russia

The Trump administration is poised to kill another useful treaty that contributes to trans-Atlantic peace.

A Russian surveillance plane flies by a U.S. Navy ship during a NATO-led military exercise in 2018. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

If you’re a nuclear superpower and you’re trying to convince the only other nuclear superpower that you’re not about to attack them, what can you do to build that trust? This was one key problem of the early Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union were in effect learning what nuclear deterrence, competition, and coexistence entailed.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower had an unconventional idea for how he might convince a paranoid and distrustful Nikita Khrushchev that Washington was not gearing up for a massive nuclear first strike or military misadventure: At a summit in Geneva on a range of issues from the prospect of reunifying Germany to possible arms control, the celebrated former Army general proposed a plan to open up the skies above the United States and the Soviet Union. Planners from both nations could exchange information on the locations of all military installations, Eisenhower suggested, and their pilots could conduct flights over these facilities.

“The [shared] layout of your military establishments, in my opinion, should be complete,” the president told reporters after the summit. “And I think that I would allow these planes—properly inspected, peaceful planes—to fly over any particular area of either country that they wanted to. Because only in this way could you convince them that there wasn’t something over there that maybe was, by surprise, ready to attack.” Khrushchev, however, balked at the proposal, which he suspected was an American “espionage plot.”

Ike was ahead of the curve. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 27 countries including the United States and Russia came together to sign the Treaty on Open Skies, which entered into force in 2002. Under its terms, participating countries could send unarmed observation aircraft with specific treaty-compliant imagery sensors to freely gawk at military hardware of interest in other participating countries, conducting flights over facilities on short notice.

Today, 34 countries participate in Open Skies, but it appears that soon there will be 33. President Trump “has signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw” from this remarkable but misunderstood treaty, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. The move appears to be a buzzer-beater shot by recently departed national security advisor John Bolton, who has never met a multilateral security agreement he didn’t hate. Not content to have been present at the destruction of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, and a U.S. pullout from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran deal—over the course of his years in public service, Bolton managed to shiv one more treaty before leaving the administration and becoming a focal point of Congress’ impeachment investigations into U.S.-Ukraine dealings.

As Slate’s Fred Kaplan writes, even as Bolton has left the building, his ideological fellow-traveler on arms control issues, Tim Morrison, remains (for a little longer) at the National Security Council, apparently seeing through the demise of Open Skies, another pillar of a fast-thinning post–Cold War arms control architecture. The United States has yet to formally initiate the six-month withdrawal process from the treaty, but that move appears likelier by the day.

The Open Skies Treaty has long had a public relations problem. Treaty-compliant flights are regularly revealed online by a dedicated group of military aviation trackers, but in some cases, routine Open Skies flight records filter up to mainstream media as baselessly provocative viral headlines. Last April, Fox News ran a panicky storycross-posted by The New York Post—alleging that a “Russian spy plane” had buzzed “over Area 51 and other secret military bases” in the U.S.; the flight, it turned out, was fully compliant with Open Skies. The headline was ammunition for right-wing treaty hawks, as well as catnip for paranoid liberals searching for signs of Trump’s acquiescence to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it was, strictly speaking, nonsense.

In contrast, withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty—and paving the path for Russia to do the same, once it can no longer surveil U.S. military sites from the air—suits Putin’s interests, while directly undercutting those of U.S. friends and allies. The treaty has been indispensable to Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia and Moscow-backed separatists: Kyiv has received data on Russian military developments, collected during flights by the U.S. and other friendly countries over Eurasia and the Caucasus. If the U.S. left the treaty, it could still share other, non–Open Skies intelligence with Ukraine, but not without sensitive processes and red tape getting in the way.

Contrary to the perception that the treaty is a giveaway to Russia, the U.S. actually conducts more flights over Russian territory than the Russians do over American installations. The treaty’s technical limitation on the type of allowable imagery sensors also places an equitable cap on the kinds of information that can be gleaned from the flights. Russian aircraft flying over American territory under Open Skies aren’t able to use super-high-resolution sensors, for instance. (U.S. imagery sensors on Open Skies surveillance planes are a little less sophisticated, but that could be rectified with smarter spending, which would amount to proverbial peanuts, as defense-budget line items go.)

But the biggest value of the Open Skies Treaty to the U.S., and the world, is its boost to confidence-building and transparency. By rule, American personnel sit in on Russian Open Skies flights, and vice versa. Treaty opponents say the widespread availability of high-resolution satellite imagery moots the accord, but most Open Skies members don’t have their own constellation of bespoke satellites, like the one Trump outed a few weeks ago by tweeting a highly classified Iran surveillance photo it had taken. Even if the U.S. could rely fully on its advanced space-based imagery sensors, the other 32 non-Russia Open Skies members gain tremendously from the treaty’s sharing process.

The Open Skies Treaty is not without its warts or disputes. The Obama administration locked horns with Moscow over Russia’s compliance and bad-faith challenges to U.S. operations under the accord. But those disputes were largely resolved in open multilateral discussions, and the lingering challenges aren’t fixed by steamrolling an unprecedented military-transparency regime, Bolton-style. The fact is that the Open Skies concept, and its application in recent years, vindicates “the continued relevance of arms control for our national security,” as one State Department official put it in 2014.

But if Trump wants advice from a fellow Republican on whether to scuttle one of the world’s most successful peace-building accords, perhaps he should check in with Eisenhower first. “I think that people want peace so much,” he said in 1959, “that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”