Dunford: Open Skies Treaty Shouldn’t Be in Place if Russians Aren’t Complying

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Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday the Treaty on Open Skies should not be in place if the Russians fail to comply with it.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his reappointment, Dunford told Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) he agreed with Pentagon chief James Mattis and others' assessments that Russia is in violation of the Open Skies Treaty.

The treaty is part of a group of late-Cold War-era agreements allowing member states to conduct surveillance flights over one another's territory and take photographs of military assets and personnel.

The United States is set to announce restrictions on Russian military flights over U.S. territories in response to Kremlin restrictions on U.S. flights over Kaliningrad, the Wall Street Journal reported. Kaliningrad is Russia's Baltic Sea exclave that officials believe is home to "sophisticated weaponry."

A low-flying Russian fly plane acting under the treaty was spotted last month buzzing Washington, D.C., and Bedminster, N.J., where President Donald Trump was staying at the time.

Dunford confirmed the Journal report about the pending restrictions.

"Those are all part of an overall effort," he said. "Senator, let me just make sure we make it clear: we believe that on balance it would be best if the treaty continued to be in place. But we don't believe the treaty should be in place if the Russians aren't complying."

Dunford said there was an "aggressive diplomatic effort" to bring the Russians back into compliance, although he said he did not know whether next-step actions, to include restricting Russian flights over Alaska and Hawaii, would be effective.

"Given the size and capabilities of our satellite constellation versus Russia's, is it fair to say that Russia gets more benefits from these flights than does the United States?" Cotton asked.

"I believe that argument has been made, and it's compelling to me," Dunford said.

Full exchange:

COTTON: I want to turn to the Open Skies Treaty. Not many Americans know about that, but it allows the United States and Russia and many other countries, but primarily those two countries, to fly aircraft over each other’s territory and take lots of pictures. Russia has been violating that treaty as Secretary Mattis testified earlier this year. I assume you agree with his testimony from earlier this year.

GEN. DUNFORD: I do, Senator. And we as a nation declared them in violation back in June.

COTTON: And there is a Wall Street Journal article today, saying that in Vienna today we will take steps to curb their flights in response to their actions by limiting our flights over Kaliningrad, their enclave in Europe at which they hold most of Europe at risk. Their limitations in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechnya. And also, their altitude floor over Moscow. Are those steps that we are about to take?

GEN. DUNFORD: Those are all part of an overall effort. Senator, let me just make sure we make it clear: we believe that on balance it would be best if the treaty continued to be in place. But we don’t believe the treaty should be in place if the Russians aren’t complying. So there is a decidedly aggressive diplomatic effort right now to bring the Russians back into compliance, which we think would be the best outcome.

COTTON: Do you expect some of these reported steps, for instance restricting flights over Alaska and Hawaii, will bring Russia back into compliance?

GEN. DUNFORD: Senator, I don’t know. But this is the best plan we have right now to bring them into compliance before we may consider other alternatives.

COTTON: Given the size and capabilities of our satellite constellation versus Russia’s, is it fair to say that Russia gets more benefits from these flights than does the United States?

DUNFORD: I believe that argument has been made, and it's compelling to me.

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