If Vladimir Putin had only two wishes left for his Russian operative in the White House before the end of his term, the first would be to further erode the already severely strained U.S. electoral process by refusing to concede the election, and providing only half-hearted cooperation with the new anti-Russian, pro-democracy president-elect who would be sworn in on January 20, 2021.
The second would be to have the U.S. withdraw from the “Open Skies” surveillance treaty and immediately dismantle the two specialized planes that the U.S. was using to maintain aerial surveillance on Russian military movements. Trump has been all too happy to oblige.
On November 22, the Trump administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from this important three decades old accord, which was intended to reduce the risk of war by allowing Russia and the U.S., on behalf of itself and its Western allies, to carry out unarmed reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories.
President Trump had served notice last May that the U.S. would withdraw in six months from the treaty, but to actually go ahead with the exit from this critical surveillance program after losing the presidential election is nothing but incomprehensible recklessness, or something far more sinister.
Either way, the U.S. and its allies will now be largely “flying blind” during this dangerous lame duck period of the Trump residency, which is the traditional time period when foreign adversaries such as Russia test U.S. preparedness and try to take advantage of any U.S. weaknesses.
Some may argue that it is only a few more weeks until the Biden/Harris team takes over, and they can just reinstate the program and no one will be the worse for it (assuming Russia does not invade Ukraine, Poland or one of the Baltic Republics in the meanwhile).
But this analysis misses the point.
Trump has cynically assured that the window of vulnerability will likely extend far beyond the date he begrudgingly decamps from the White House.
Not only has he ordered that the highly sophisticated OC-135B Open Skies aircraft flown by U.S. Air Force and allied crews are grounded, but he has also ordered that the planes be dismantled so they are no longer serviceable.
And there are reportedly no new upgraded surveillance planes in the pipeline to replace them.
This decision to dismantle the specialized aircraft used for these surveillance missions over Russia is unfathomable and intentionally malicious, as if Trump and a mob of his most rabid followers ripped out the plumbing in the White House and declassified sensitive intelligence documents revealing the identities of U.S. high-level sources in Russia before leaving. Replacing these planes will likely take months, or longer.
The U.S. has some legitimate complaints regarding Russia’s abuses of the program, such as its refusal to permit U.S. and allied observation flights within a 10-kilometer corridor along its border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thereby attempting to advance false Russian claims that these occupied territories are independent states.
Russia also designated a refueling airfield in Crimea, Ukraine, as part of its Open Skies program, similarly intended to advance its claim of purported annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
In 2019, Russia unjustifiably denied a shared United States and Canada observation flight over a large Russian military exercise.
However, these legitimate U.S. complaints about Russian abuses of the Open Skies program have been the subject of intense diplomatic discussions between the U.S. and Russia, and the Biden administration unquestionably should be given the opportunity to pursue these diplomatic avenues before making any final decisions as to the future (or not) of the program.
Just canceling the program and throwing these planes in the scrap heap is akin to shooting yourself in the foot while trying to defend yourself.
In addition to compromising America’s security and that of its allies, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the treaty is also a violation of U.S. law.
In the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress reaffirmed its support for the Open Skies treaty and specifically required that the administration justify a withdrawal four months before any formal notification of withdrawal took place.
President Trump characteristically ignored the law and carried out the withdrawal anyway, even though he will be shortly exiting the presidency.
By cancelling and disabling the Open Skies program, Trump is delivering to the Kremlin one of the most prized items on its Christmas wish list.
The U.S. and its allies will be paying the price in compromised security for the foreseeable future, and this move will sharply limit the Biden administration’s ability to hit the ground running with an effective surveillance program in place.