WASHINGTON -- A group of top Democratic senators rebuked the Trump administration for unilaterally withdrawing from a treaty that permits the United States and Russia to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory, saying it impairs national defense.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper on June 22, the senators also called the timing of the withdrawal “suspect,” saying it would be completed just days before the U.S. presidential election in November and would limit the next administration if the Democrats occupy the White House in January.
The senators said the administration violated the National Defense Appropriations Act by not notifying Congress 120 days prior to the start of the five-month withdrawal process. The Trump administration notified Congress on May 22 of its plans to immediately withdraw from the treaty.
“Beginning the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, without complying with U.S. domestic law or constitutional practice, is an obvious political maneuver in an attempt to bind a future administration,” the senators said in the letter.
The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Minority Leader Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), Senate Armed Services Committee Minority Leader Jack Reed (Democrat-Rhode Island), and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Mark Warner (Democrat-Virginia).
The Trump administration has accused Russia of repeatedly violating the Open Skies Treaty as its reason for withdrawing.
The Open Skies Treaty was signed in 1992 and entered into force 10 years later. There are currently 34 states party to the agreement. The treaty allows each state to conduct short-notice, unarmed flights over the others' territories to collect data on military forces and activities. Satellites today can provide the same detailed information.
The Democrats said in their letter that the treaty is far from perfect as Russia has limited overflights of its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad as well as Georgia, which borders the North Caucasus region.
Nonetheless, they said the treaty’s benefits still outweighed its drawbacks, with the United States flying over Russia’s territory nearly three times more than Russian surveillance planes overfly the United States.
“The United States relies on the treaty to attain important, real-time information on Russian military activities, including Russian activities in Ukraine. Furthermore, our treaty partners view our participation as a gauge for our commitment to ensuring the security of their respective nations. By withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, the United States is leaving an agreement our partners have repeatedly communicated they value and believe improves their security,” the letter said.