If you looked across the tarmac at the Great Falls, Montana airport in April, you likely would have been surprised to see a fully marked Russian Air Force jet parked nearby. Its mission that week would have been even more puzzling: The unarmed Tupolev Tu-154M spent four days flying over some of the most sensitive military bases in the United States, including the complex in the Nevada desert known as “Area 51.”
The surveillance flights, all announced and conducted with American personnel onboard to monitor them, were part of a lingering legacy of the Cold War. Authorization under the long-standing treaty known as “Open Skies” made them routine and uncontroversial—at least until Monday night.
That’s when representative Eliot Engel (D-New York) the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien saying he was “deeply concerned” by reports that Trump was considering withdrawing from Open Skies—what would be the latest in the administration’s efforts to unwind many of the multilateral agreements, institutions, and treaties that have helped govern the world and keep peace since World War II.
“[I] strongly urge you against such a reckless action,” Engel wrote. “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests…. The United States should prepare for the challenge that Russia presents—not abandon mechanisms that provide the United States with an important tool in maintaining surveillance on Russia.”
While the Trump administration and Hill allies like senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) have long expressed frustration with the deal, Monday’s movement seemed to blindside foreign policy and arms control experts, who quickly expressed puzzlement and outrage that the Trump administration would unwind what’s been seen as a cornerstone of global defense. Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, “Please tell me this can’t be true.”
The treaty, which primarily focuses on the US and Russia, actually has a total of 34 signatories across Europe and North America, and allows for countries to conduct structured but almost unimpeded surveillance flights by specially outfitted aircraft to monitor each others’ militaries. Over the last 16 years, the treaty has enabled nearly 200 flights by the US over Russia and more than 70 flights by Russia over the United States.
If the Trump administration does pull out, the collapse of the Open Skies agreement would be the latest in a series of little-noticed but impactful moves by the White House to undo the patchwork of arms control agreements that have kept at bay a new nuclear arms race between the US and Russia. Earlier this year, Trump withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which limited ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, saying that Russia no longer abided by the treaty anyway.
The Russian Open Skies flights over the United States often make headlines, as people wonder why Russian surveillance planes are flying overhead, but the US also flies similar over Russia—and in 2018 actually conducted one such flight over Ukraine to monitor Russia’s military buildup in the territory it seized there in 2014. (America’s fleet of Open Skies aircraft, aging, problem-prone OC-135B planes, is based at Offutt Air Force Base, down the tarmac at the base outside Omaha, Nebraska, from the president’s own Doomsday plane.)
The flights are closely monitored and highly structured; as the State Department’s fact sheet explains, “The Treaty limits all optical sensors, including electro-optical, to 30 centimeter resolution; a level that allows parties to distinguish between a tank and a truck and is of similar resolution to imagery available from commercial sources like Google Earth.”