Arms control treaties can be a powerful national security tool. But too often arms control proponents — those who seek to control weapons by agreement — get confused: Is arms control a means to a national security end or the end itself?
President Trump has never been afraid to step back, evaluate what the United States and its allies gain from an agreement and how a potential adversary benefits from it, and decide what’s in the best interest of the security of the American people.
Mr. Trump, whose administration I served in, said on Thursday that the United States will initiate the process to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies. Signed in 1992 by 34 nations including Russia, the treaty sought to increase international stability by allowing signatory nations to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories to observe military installations and other sites using specific, agreed-upon sensor technology.
When the treaty entered into force in 2002, its proponents, including those in the George W. Bush administration, hoped it would cement a new era of openness between the West and Russia by creating a means of ensuring confidence and transparency through carefully choreographed flights over one another’s territory.
The agreement was not intended to be used by one party to collect military-relevant intelligence on the other parties, like the means to target critical infrastructure. We now know this is how Russia abuses it.
When the treaty was ratified, who could have predicted the trajectory of Russian foreign policy over the next 18 years? From its invasions and annexation of sovereign territory and use of chemical weapons in Britain to the attempted hack of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons by an intelligence arm and its invasion of Syria, it’s telling that Russia’s military adventures weren’t seen coming by Open Skies Treaty overflights.
Russia even ended the Nunn-Lugar program in 2012, which meant the end of American boots on the ground in Russia’s nuclear weapons establishment. For 30 years this program offered real security by preventing the loss of nuclear material to criminals and terrorists. Ending it proved that President Vladimir Putin wasn’t interested in transparency and mutual security.
And Russia has never truly honored its commitments under the Treaty on Open Skies (or, frankly, under most other arms control agreements). Since 2005, an annual State Department report has shown that Russia hasn’t been meeting its obligations. Its noncompliance continued into 2017, when the United States finally determined its noncompliance constituted a violation of its treaty obligations. That allowed America to impose countermeasures to raise the cost to Russia of continued noncompliance. Yet Russia’s violations persist.
American senior military and intelligence officials have consistently warned about the threat Russia’s misuse of Open Skies poses to American security. For example, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency warned Congress that Russia had been using the treaty to “get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities,” adding that “it gives them a significant advantage.” And the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command warned that “the treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States.” Actionable military intelligence collection was never an intended purpose of the treaty; confidence-building and transparency was its goal.
So when Russia used a 2017 treaty overflight to conduct surveillance of the White House and the president’s summer retreat in Bedminster, N.J., the administration took notice.
Russian noncompliance isn’t just an American problem. Because the Open Skies Treaty includes 34 states, mostly in Europe, its implications are broader than the bilateral security dynamic of the United States versus Russia.
Most European countries don’t have the same critical infrastructure that the United States does, such as nuclear command and control, and unsurprisingly don’t have to worry about the same sorts of risks to their security. And too often our allies in Europe confuse support for arms control with support for their own defense. What ends up happening is that the United States foots the bill for the defense of European nations, while they cling to arms control agreements that have either failed or threaten their own security.
It’s a simple fact that there are more cost-effective means for states to gain insight into what Russia is doing inside its borders. The global commercial imagery industry has emerged since the treaty was ratified. So allies (many of whom already have access to America’s national technical means) have access to inexpensive, unclassified and easily shared persistent satellite imagery, eliminating the need for fleets of airplanes that are expensive to maintain and operate.
Proponents of the treaty will argue it is essential to European security. They will posit that it is a valuable way to maintain structured dialogue with Mr. Putin, even when Russia does not fully honor the treaty’s terms. But this again confuses ends with means. The treaty was intended only to promote openness. If one treaty party — Russia — abuses that openness by directly targeting the security of the other signatory states, the treaty undermines security instead of promoting it. And when there are new ways to use modern technology to accomplish the same purpose at lower risk — commercial imagery — it’s time for a fresh look at risks versus benefits and ends versus means.
Once the president decides to initiate the treaty withdrawal and the State Department has notified the other parties, a six-month process begins. At the end of it, the United States exits the treaty. Our allies might, as they did during the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty withdrawal process, come to take seriously U.S. concerns about Russian noncompliance and treaty misuse.
But as it stands now, the Open Skies Treaty has not only outlived its usefulness but has also become a tool for an adversary to threaten U.S. national security. The president would be right to withdraw. He should also recommit to our allies to achieve the mutual security benefit gained by working against Mr. Putin’s aggression.
Tim Morrison, a former senior director on the National Security Council leading U.S. arms control policy, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.