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Pompeo says Russia used Open-Skies Treaty to find targets for missile attacks

Testing of Russia's Burevestnik nuclear-powered missile. (Russian Ministry of Defense/Released)
May 22, 2020

On Thursday, the Trump administration announced its plan to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, citing numerous concerns of Russian non-compliance.

While the U.S. has raised issue with Russia blocking U.S. surveillance flights over its territory, as is provided for in the treaty, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised another particular concern in comments to The Washington Times on Wednesday. Pompeo indicated U.S. concerns that Russia used the surveillance flights permitted in the treaty to gather data on U.S. and allied targets.

“Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions,” Pompeo said.

The Treaty on Open Skies was originally envisioned to allow member countries to fly surveillance flights over each other’s territories so they could monitor military actions and insure against imminent attacks.

Pompeo said however that “rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency, Russia has, therefore, weaponized the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”

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While officially announcing the U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty, Pompeo and the Pentagon criticized Russia for blocking U.S. surveillance flights since 2017, including within a certain range of Kaliningrad Oblast, the Georgian-Russian border and in September 2019 over a major Russian military exercise.

Other reports have alleged Russian efforts to spy on infrastructure to identify vulnerabilities for cyberattacks.

Pompeo’s additional disclosure, that Russian surveillance flights under the treaty are also being used to gather targeting information for weapons, comes after defense officials warned in 2019 that Russia had sent ships armed with cruise missiles into the Atlantic.

Russian warships, armed with the new precision-guided Kalibr cruise missiles were being deployed in the western Atlantic throughout 2019, according to defense officials who spoke with the Washington Times. The new weapons are believed to have a range between 930 miles and 1,550 miles, meaning the Russian ships could target cities along the East coast while sitting hundreds of miles offshore.

Russian strategic bombers were also observed in 2014, practicing simulated cruise missile strikes on U.S. cities from launch sites off the coast of Canada, raising the prospect of Russia at least preparing weapons that could specifically threaten U.S. targets. Russia has also developed a new missile, the KH-101, wich military officials believe is meant to specifically target electric power grids.

Under the notice provided by Pompeo Thursday, the U.S. has laid out a six month period before finalizing its withdrawal from the treaty. Pompeo has indicated the U.S. could stick with the treaty, if Russia moves back into compliance with the deal. Pompeo told the Washington Times that the Trump administration’s decision on the treaty follows a strategy of continuously assessing whether existing treaties are actually working and benefiting U.S. national security.