The US is going to announce restrictions to Russian military flights over American territory under the Treaty on Open Skies. The restrictions reportedly applying to flights over Hawaii and Alaska would come into force on January 1, 2018. The United States will stop waiving certain Federal Aviation Administration flight restrictions for the Open Skies flights and no longer allow overnight accommodations at some airfields designated for Open Skies flights.
Signed in 1992 and in force since 2002, the treaty, a fundamental trust-building measure, permits its 34 ratified member-states to conduct observation flights over one another’s territory while capturing aerial imagery of military personnel and materiel. US officials assert that Russia violated the agreement by imposing restrictions on flights over the Kaliningrad Oblast, a non-contiguous section of Russian territory squeezed between Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea.
Under the treaty, nations get a quota of flights they can fly over one another’s territory. Russia began restricting that flight distance to 500km for all flights over Kaliningrad since 2014. “US experts have determined that 500 kilometers is insufficient to enable the United States to observe Kaliningrad in its entirety in one flight,” warns the State Department’s 2016 adherence report.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his reappointment on September, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US may scrap the treaty “if Russia is not in compliance.” According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the US military see a diminishing value of the treaty, which was negotiated in the early 1990s and came into force in 2002, due to advances of satellite imaging technology.
Russia restricted flights over the Kaliningrad region because some parties to the treaty crossed the length and breadth of the flight path, causing problems in the use of the region's limited airspace and to the Kaliningrad international airport. The new regulation is in compliance with the treaty. The US, Canada, Turkey and Georgia have established restrictions within the treaty on flying over their territories.
The US claims that observation flights near Russia’s borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been restricted in breach of the treaty. US media fail to present the Russian position on the issue. Moscow points out that that the two entities are sovereign states recognized as such by Russia. The Open Sky Treaty states that the flights must not violate a ten-kilometer corridor along the border of another state. As one can see, the refusal is in compliance with the treaty’s provisions.
Russia has some “no-fly zones” stipulated by national law. The treaty also allows for deviations under "force majeure," or an event beyond a state's control. Normally, it has not been a problem but it has become one as the bilateral relationship has deteriorated and anti-Russia hysteria has been whipped up in America.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia would take its own measures against the United States in response to any new US restrictions. Commenting on the expected announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said treaty members “should strictly follow its terms and raise any complaints through mechanisms of the treaty.”
Russia also has claims that a number of participating states, including Canada and the United States, are interfering with observation flights but it does not let it come into the open. “We have serious claims that a number of participating states are interfering with observation flights,” retired Maj. Gen. Alexander Peresypkin, a member of Russia’s Vienna delegation, told the Wall Street Journal.
Like in the case of INF Treaty, the US makes controversial issues come into the public domain before officials and experts are engaged in serious discussions to address the differences. It should be noted that the Trump administration has not yet formed a good team capable of negotiating with Russia on arms control related issues.
Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s department on arms control, “As for the claims against us, we do not consider them grounded. In fact, the agreement is very complex; its provisions cannot always be straightforwardly interpreted, so it is necessary to look for compromises and solutions.” Steve Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control and the Bureau of International Security and Non-proliferation, told Congress that Russia complies with the Open Skies Treaty.
The United States launched the arms control erosion process by withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It still has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) 20 years after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. In 2016, Russia suspended the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PDMA) because of Washington's failure to observe the terms of the deal. Now the US Congress is moving decisively to start dismantling the Open Skies Treaty along with other major arms control agreements currently in place.
There are only the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty still left in force. The future of both is in doubt. President Trump has already decried the New Start Treaty. The INF Treaty has become a controversial issue with both sides accusing each other of violations. The US has already taken practical steps leading to the withdrawal from it. Now Washington is on the way to tear up the treaty, which has enormous importance for confidence building.
The Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures is limited in its ability to garner information on the ongoing military activities. The Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty complement each other. Tearing up the Open Skies Treaty means killing the confidence-building regime between Russia and NATO. With the treaty in force, transparency is enhanced and the risk of war and miscalculation is reduced. It’s important to keep it in place and settle the disputes at the round table.