Sen. Tom Cotton says that the Trump administration should unilaterally withdraw the United States from its “Open Skies” treaty, which governs how each country conducts aerial surveillance regarding military activities and forces as a means of assurance.
Entered into force on 1 January 2002, the treaty has 34 signatories, but the Arkansas Republican says that it is favoring Russia to the detriment of the United States.
“The Open Skies Treaty is out of date and favors Russia, and the best way forward is to leave it,” Cotton, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday.
Cotton’s recommendation comes as the Trump administration has refused to sign off on Moscow’s deployment of a new surveillance plane. The treaty allows signatory nations to conduct unarmed surveillance flights but only if the aircraft used passes inspection by every member state.
The refusal by the U.S. has upset Moscow, but it is a sign of increased tension between both countries.
“By refusing to certify the Russian aircraft for observation flights, the US side has once again demonstrated to other states participating in the certification process that it puts political matters above the plane’s compliance with the treaty’s provisions,” Sergei Ryzhkov, chief of Russia’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, told state-run TASS.
Ryzhkov said the U.S. refusal stems from technological inferiority. “The US governmental agencies and establishment cannot tolerate the fact that the United States was left more than 5-7 years behind when Russia designed a modern surveillance aircraft and equipped it with domestically produced digital equipment,” he said.
Cotton, however, said Moscow’s move to limit U.S. surveillance flights over the militarily significant Russian city of Kaliningrad is what is inspiring him to recommend withdrawal from the treaty.
“It’s rich for Russia to protest this decision when it routinely restricts surveillance flights over Kaliningrad and other areas,” he said.
Analysis: In recent years Russia has substantially upgraded its facilities and military capabilities at Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave which is strategically located between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea.
The aircraft at issue, two Tu-214ONs that Moscow acquired in 2013 and 2014, are reportedly equipped with digital cameras, including ones with infrared capability, and radar imaging equipment. And while the treaty doesn’t prohibit such equipment, it does require that any surveillance gear provided limited fidelity.
The treaty is essentially designed to provide participating nations with the confidence that rival countries are not massing forces to invade; it was not meant to allow rivals to gather otherwise useful intelligence that could eventually be used against them.
The fact that Russia is not allowing flights over Kaliningrad is suspect since the Kremlin has been exerting undue influence on some eastern flank NATO countries, and especially the Baltics. The Pentagon and NATO both have expressed concerns in recent years that Moscow could opt to move militarily against one of the Baltic states under the same excuse given to invade and annex Crimea and Georgia: The military alliance’s continued expansion into countries and regions historically within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
While Cotton likely knows more than he is saying, as for withdrawing from the treaty altogether, that sounds premature and shortsighted. It may be that Putin is limiting what the U.S. and NATO can ‘see’ in and around Kaliningrad, but having no eyes in the sky at all, save for satellite imagery, could put the alliance at an even greater disadvantage.