Flying Blind

Russia Blocks U.S. from Treaty-Approved Spy Flights
An US F16 fighter jet takes off from a Romanian air base

An US F16 fighter jet takes off from a Romanian air base / AP

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The Russian government this week canceled a planned U.S. surveillance flight over Russian territory in a bid to limit spying on massed troops facing off against Ukraine and Eastern Europe, according to U.S. officials.

The overflight mission was scheduled for April 14 to April 16 under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, but Russia’s government notified the State Department 72 hours before the scheduled flight that it would not be permitted.

The cancelation is unusual because the sole reason for putting off such treaty-approve surveillance is flight safety, such as bad weather.

Until this week, the United States and other European allies who are a party to the 34-nation treaty were conducting weekly overflights above Russia during the past month.

The Russian cancelation of the flight comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine, where Russian troops militarily annexed the Crimean peninsula last month and continue to foment pro-Russian unrest in the eastern part of the country.

The cancelation further undermines the Obama administration’s arms control-centered security policies. Russia recently was accused of violating and circumventing other arms treaties, including the 2010 New START arms treaty and the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Until this week, the overflights had been providing close up aerial observation of Russian military deployments near Ukraine and near NATO allies in Eastern Europe where concerns are increasing about Russian military aggression.

U.S. intelligence agencies are continuing to closely monitor Russian troop movements using imagery satellites. The Pentagon has said the tens of thousands of Russian troops, along with tanks and armored vehicles, have been “staging” in recent weeks in apparent preparation for military action.

Recent intelligence reports also revealed that Moscow is building up military forces in the Crimea, where significant numbers of T-72 tanks were observed being shipped on rail cars. U.S. officials fear the Crimea buildup is part of plans for a large-scale military operation against eastern Ukraine.

Under the Open Skies Treaty, the sole permitted reason for canceling such overflights is flight safety and U.S. officials said that was not the reason for the Russians’ action. “They’re getting ready to do something [to Ukraine] and they don’t want us looking,” said one official familiar with the canceled flight.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on the canceled overflight. However, she said the United States and European allies have conducted Open Skies flights over Russia each week for the past month. The flights are “providing useful insights into Russian military activity near Ukraine.”

Russia has deployed between 40,000 and 80,000 troops near Ukraine’s eastern border. Other Russian troops are said to be deployed in areas close to the Baltic

The canceled flight also followed reports that the Obama administration security officials are opposing plans to permit Russian Open Skies flights over U.S. territory with new monitoring aircraft outfitted with advanced sensors.

The new Russian aircraft being considered for U.S. certification is the Tu-214ON, one of two new surveillance aircraft to be used for Open Skies overflights. The aircraft will be equipped with digital imagery equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared gear.

All flights under the treaty require 72 hours advance notification. The advance notice allows participating states to place sensitive or secret military equipment in hangers or other hidden locations, but allows for large forces and weapons to be displayed.

“We are currently reviewing a Russian request for certification of a sensor that would be used in Open Skies overflights to ensure that the new sensor meets the technical specifications required by the treaty,” Hayden told the Free Beacon, noting that the treaty permits aircraft with digital sensors and has procedures for certifying the sensors.

Even with the ongoing aircraft review, Hayden defended the Open Skies Treaty as enhancing confidence and transparency for 34 states who use it to obtain information on military forces and activities of treaty partners.

The treaty, “contributes to European security by providing images and information on Russian forces, and by permitting observation flights to verify compliance with arms control agreements,” she said.

Former Pentagon official Phillip A. Karber said the denial of the Open Skies flight appears to be designed to limit intelligence gathering on Russian forces near Ukraine.

The Ukrainians are facing a 300-degree front along their border with Russia and a large-scale amphibious assault threat from ships in the Black Sea. The Ukrainian military has excellent human intelligence but “they are virtually blind beyond their border,” he said.

“So it’s no surprise the Russians would like to deny the U.S. and through us the Ukrainians any insight into where a major attack might come,” Karber said in an interview.

Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who took part in Open Skies missions in the past, said the Russian cancelation is unusual.

“Open Skies flights are a key feature of the U.S. and Russian military-to-military relationship in the post-Cold War environment,” Harmer said.

“Canceling these flights is indisputable proof that the relationship between the two militaries is the worst it has been in over two decades and degrading rapidly.”

Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe remain strained over Ukraine. NATO has cut off all military exchanges with Russia in response to the Crimean annexation.

Additionally, the Pentagon has canceled all other military cooperation with Russia, and the Commerce and State Department have cut off U.S. exports of military and dual-use military-civilian goods.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed deteriorating U.S.-Russia ties during a public question and answer session on Thursday.

Putin blamed the United States for declining relations.

“I agree that the trust has been undermined, to a great degree, but why is this happening? We believe that in this situation we are not at fault,” he said, adding that he hopes ties can be improved.

“We have some contacts with them, but our colleagues had made the decision to suspend them. I hope that, with the time, everything will fall into place,” Putin said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen in Brussels on Wednesday said the alliance is increasing military patrols in Eastern Europe following Russian interference in Ukraine.

“Our decisions today are about defense, deterrence, and de-escalation,” Rasmussen said in a statement on the NATO website. “NATO will protect every ally and defend against any threat against our fundamental security.”

On NATO enlargement, Putin issued a threatening rebuke to any plans by the alliance to extend eastward.

“We have no fear—I do not have and no one else should have this either,” Putin said. “Yet we have to bear the realities in mind.”

Instead of extending NATO, Putin said he favors bilateral security treaties but was told by the West “that is none of your business” and that each nation has the right to choose its own security agreements.

“This is true. But this is also true that whenever the infrastructure of a military bloc is moving towards our borders we have certain fears and questions. We have to take some steps in return. This is also true and no one can deny this to us,” Putin said.

When asked if NATO actions had created a “suffocating feeling” in Russia: Putin stated: “We can suffocate them ourselves, don’t be so afraid.”

A State Department official said the flight was delayed due to “weather conditions beyond the time permitted by the treaty.” Weather conditions for most of Russia during the past three days show clear or partly cloudy skies. The official said the flight will be rescheduled.