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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has made a final decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty and will make a formal announcement before the end of the week, sources confirm to Defense News.
The administration has begun informing the other 34 members in the agreement, which allows mutual reconnaissance flights over the member nations, including Russia. At 12:40 PM, the news was confirmed by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The move, first reported Thursday by The New York Times, is not unexpected, as administration officials signaled to European allies toward the end of last year that unless major changes were made to the overflight agreement, the U.S. would consider withdrawing. However, there had been little movement in the months since, giving advocates hope that a decision to exit the treaty had not been finalized.
“It was pretty clear from meetings that it was basically a done deal and it was just a matter of when,” one European source said.
Allies generally argue the treaty is a valuable channel for transparency and dialogue between Russia and the United States, the world’s top two nuclear superpowers. Critics have argued that the U.S. gets better intelligence from satellite systems and that the funding to replace the aging OC-135 aircraft can be spent elsewhere.
A second European source acknowledged that Russia has had compliance issues with the treaty, but said there was a sense those holes were being fixed. While predicting that the NATO members in the treaty will remain, the source was unclear what Russia will do next.
“If you’re Russia, you can stay in and take the moral high ground, say ‘we still honor international treaties even if America doesn’t,’ or you can say the treaty is diminished beyond usefulness and you pull out. I don’t know which they’ll do, but neither is good for NATO,” the source said.
The source added that while it is true the U.S. gets its best intelligence from its satellites as opposed to OC-135 flights, focusing entirely on that is “selfish” because “a lot of NATO allies rely on Open Skies for visibility into what goes on in Russia.”
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, passed late last year, included a requirement that President Donald Trump give 120 days notice before providing treaty members with a notice of his intent to withdraw. However, the president’s Dec. 20 signing statement of the NDAA cited executive powers to reject that requirement.
“I reiterate the longstanding understanding of the executive branch that these types of provisions encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs,” the signing statement reads.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said the department has “nothing to announce on the Open Skies treaty” during a noon briefing at the DoD.
Throughout its term, the Trump administration has been skeptical of arms control agreements. The U.S. and Russia walked away from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last August, and officials have expressed skepticism about renewing the New START nuclear agreement with Russia, which expires in 2021.