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US defense chief assails Russia’s ‘noncompliance’ with Open Skies Treaty

Then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dec. 7, 2017. (U.S. Army/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper accused Russia of violating the Treaty on Open Skies, saying Moscow has been blocking the United States from conducting flights over the Baltic Sea city of Kaliningrad and near Georgia, which are permitted by the agreement.

“We’ve also been denied access to military exercise overflights,” Espert told a congressional hearing on March 4. “I have a lot of concerns about the treaty as it stands now.”

Signed by 34 nations including Russia, the 18-year-old treaty aims to increase international stability by allowing signatory nations to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories to observe military installations and other objects.

The Wall Street Journal reported in October that President Donald Trump had signed a document signaling his administration’s intent to withdraw from the treaty, the latest in a series of major arms control and disarmament accords that are on the verge of collapse.

The administration, however, has yet to announce any plans regarding the treaty.

Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Moscow has been cheating on the treaty “for many years.”

“We need to speak out more clearly about Russian noncompliance,” he said.

Esper told the panel that he raised the matter at last month’s meeting of NATO defense chiefs.

“This is important to many of our NATO allies, that they have the means to conduct the overflights,” he said.

‘Out Of Date’

Some U.S. lawmakers and military officials have voiced allegations that Russia was conducting overflights of U.S. territory using advanced camera technology that were more intrusive than past flights.

U.S. administration officials did block a Russian plane using that technology from flying in 2016. Officials later relented, though another delay was imposed at the behest of Republican lawmakers in 2018.

In September 2018, after Russia complained about U.S. delays in allowing the Russian flight, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a vocal opponent of the treaty, raised the issue of Russian restrictions.

“The Open Skies Treaty is out of date and favors Russia, and the best way forward is to leave it,” he said.

The treaty is one of several arms control agreements that are on the verge of collapse, or have already collapsed. After years of accusations toward Moscow, the Trump administration last year pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

And the New START treaty, which puts limits on the entire nuclear arsenals for both Russia and the United States, is due to expire in 2021, unless the two sides agree to extend it.