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US’ Mixed Signals Over Open Skies Treaty

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US' Mixed Signals Over Open Skies Treaty

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The US military has carried out 21 flights under the Open Skies Treaty in 2019, and there are 38 flights planned for 2020.

According to the Chief of the National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center Sergei Ryzhkov, the US military was satisfied with the Open Skies Treaty (OST), but it is concerned that Russia may introduce new state-of-the-art technology into the treaty. So, Russia may see ‘more than it should’ during its flights above the US and allies.

“Of the total of 38 observation flights over Russia planned for 2020, the United States announced 21 flights. In 2017 and 2018, the States conducted 16 observation flights over us. Thus, it is obvious that the US military is interested in OST,” Ryzhkov wrote in a piece published in the Russian Armed Forces’ official outlet Krasnaya Zvezda.

“The advantages of the Russian Federation in obtaining information have grown significantly and become obvious. It became clear that in the direction of introducing advanced technologies in OST, we are ahead of our partners by about 5-6 years,” he stressed.

According to Ryzhkov, “the National Security Council and the US intelligence community began to seriously think about how to prevent Russian digital flights over its territory and developed a vigorous campaign to accuse Russia of violating military agreements.”

“Every year, the website of the US Department of State published analyzes of the implementation of international arms control obligations, which paid considerable attention to the ‘unfair implementation’ of the Open Skies Treaty by the Russian Federation,” he underlined.

He also recalled that earlier the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives of the US Congress, Eliot Engel, who was alarmed by reports that the White House was considering the possibility of a unilateral exit of the States from the OST.

“With regard to the withdrawal of the United States from the treaty, it can be assumed with a high degree of certainty that the opponents of the treaty are driven by a desire to oppose Russia’s progress in this direction. At the same time, obvious self-interests are pushed into the background,” Ryzhkov stressed.

“Thus, we see signs of serious contradictions in Washington regarding the withdrawal from the treaty. This is confirmed by the fact that a group of influential US parliamentarians sent Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper a petition urging them to abandon their intentions to withdraw from the OST.”

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, agreed that the treaty has been beneficial for the US, its allies, and even Russia.

“The treaty provides information about Russian military activities for the US and allies in Europe,” Kimball told Business Insider. “And it also provides the Russians with some insight about some of our capabilities. And that transparency reduces uncertainty and the risk of conflict due to worst-case assumptions.”

The Open Skies Agreement was signed on March 24th, 1992, and entered into force on January 1st, 2002. 34 states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) participate in it. OST is intended for air monitoring of the military activities of countries, assistance in the implementation of existing and future agreements in the field of arms control, crisis prevention and environmental protection.

Countries that are part of the treaty must notify other nations 72 hours in advance of missions to conduct an observational flight, to which the host country has one day to respond.

On April 4th, a Russian Tu-154 conducted an observational flight over Great Falls, Montana and for several days took aerial photos.

“This is not a spying operation,” Kimball said. “These are observational flights. It is a form of monitoring and verification about the military activities and facilities on each side.”

Kimball, trying to play down a possible withdrawal, said the US had significant satellite capabilities that could mitigate a lapse in observational flights, but he added that a pullout from the treaty might affect US allies.

“Where this is particularly valuable is for our allies who don’t have these capabilities,” Kimball said. “We should not dispense with this treaty that’s been working for a couple of decades now.”

In 2018, Russian officials accused the US of violating the spirit of the agreement by not approving its aircraft to conduct observational missions, according to Defense News.

In response, the US accused Russia of restricting flight access, US officials accused Russia of violating the treaty by restricting flights in Kaliningrad. Referring to Russia’s alleged denial, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton characterized the outrage as hypocrisy and advocated a US withdrawal from the treaty.

“It’s rich for the Russians to protest the US’s refusal to certify one of their planes for the Open Skies Treaty when they routinely restrict surveillance flights over Kaliningrad,” Cotton said in. “The Open Skies Treaty is out of date and favors Russia, and the best way forward is to leave it.”

Despite the accusations, the above-mentioned Eliot Engel said the US should not withdraw from the treaty. “US relations with Russia have become more acrimonious and complicated in the last decade,” he said in his letter.

“The United States should prepare for the challenge that Russia presents — not abandon mechanisms that provide the United States with an important tool in maintaining surveillance on Russia.”

It appears that both Russia, the US and others benefit from the treaty, but recent US foreign policy shows that it is totally acceptable to “cut off your nose to spite the face.”

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