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Pentagon: Here’s how Russia has been violating Open Skies treaty since 2017

RF-85655 Tupolev 154M-Lk-1 Russian Air Force (Open Skies) UUMB. (Papas Dos/Wikimedia Commons)
May 22, 2020

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. would submit notice of its withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies over concerns of Russian noncompliance. Following that announcement, the Pentagon listed a number of specific violations by Russia that had led the U.S. to its decision to withdraw.

The Treaty on Open Skies was established to assure member countries that other participants are not conducting concerning military activities, by allowing mutual surveillance flights among member countries. In a Thursday statement, the Pentagon assessed that Russia had not allowed key surveillance flights over its territory since 2017 while also using its own surveillance flights to justify aggression against neighboring countries.

“The Open Skies Treaty was designed decades ago to increase transparency, cooperation, and mutual understanding,” the statement reads, referring to the treaty which was signed in 1992 and ratified a decade later. “Instead, Russia has increasingly used the Treaty to support propaganda narratives in an attempt to justify Russian aggression against its neighbors and may use it for military targeting against the United States and our Allies.”

The Pentagon statement continued, “Russia has also continuously violated its obligations under the Treaty, despite a host of U.S. and Allied efforts over the past several years. Since 2017, the United States has declared Russia in violation of the Treaty for limiting flight distances over the Kaliningrad Oblast to 500 kilometers (km) and for denying flights within 10 km of portions of the Georgian-Russian border. Most recently, in September 2019, Russia violated the Treaty again by denying a flight over a major military exercise, preventing the exact transparency the Treaty is meant to provide.”

The Trump administration has been raising concerns in recent months about Russia’s decisions to block the exact kinds of surveillance flights guaranteed in the treaty. President Donald Trump signed a document in October, signifying his intent to leave the deal. In a March congressional hearing, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also raised concerns about the blocked surveillance flights.

The decision to withdraw, however, could raise problems for other countries still maintaining the agreement. If the U.S. leaves, other countries with less capable surveillance equipment may struggle to gather the same information about Russian military activity gathered in the past. The U.S. withdrawal could also prompt Russia to do the same.

“We remain committed to effective, verifiable, and enforceable arms control policies that advance U.S., Allied, and partner security, and we will continue to work together to achieve those ends,” the Pentagon statement said. “The United States has been in close communication with our Allies and partners regarding our review of the Treaty and we will explore options to provide additional imagery products to Allies to mitigate any gaps that may result from this withdrawal.”

In Pompeo’s Thursday announcement, he did say that the U.S. could reconsider its move to withdraw from the treaty if Russia returns to “full compliance.”