The Trump administration began privately informing allied nations this week that the United States will withdraw from a treaty designed to reduce the chances of an accidental war between Russia and the United States by allowing reconnaissance flights over the two countries, said diplomats familiar with the discussions.

A withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies risks driving another wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe, some of whom urged the U.S. to remain in the pact in recent weeks despite U.S. concerns about Russian compliance.

Donald Trump

Defense Secretary Mark Esper with President Donald Trump in March. Associated Press

The Treaty on Open Skies emerged out of a proposal that President Dwight D. Eisenhower initially suggested to the Soviets to promote transparency about military surveillance overflights.

The Soviet Union rejected his offer, but President George H.W. Bush revived the idea after the fall of the Soviet Union and the multi-country pact was signed in 1992. It came into force in 2002, after the 20th country ratified the pact.

Today, the treaty includes 34 nations and allows each of them to carry out reconnaissance flights over one another’s territory on short notice to gather information about military activities.

The Trump administration has argued that Russia is violating the Open Skies Treaty. In March, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Russia had blocked the United States from flying reconnaissance missions over the exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and the southern border with Georgia.

“They have been cheating for many years,” Esper said during a testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Advocates of the treaty said a U.S. withdrawal would be counter-productive.

“The problems we were having with Open Skies did not defeat the object and the purpose of the treaty,” said Alex Bell, a senior director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “It never appeared like the Trump Administration was really trying to fix these compliance problems. It seems like they only know how to break things.”

The U.S. intention to withdrawal is expected to come up at a lunch in Washington this week between Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and a senior State Department official in charge of arms control, Christopher Ford.


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