Things are cooling off rapidly between the U.S. and Russia, and while it’s too soon to say if winter is coming, it’s not a good sign that air space provisions from a Cold War-era treaty are about to take a blast to the past. The Open Skies consultative commission is meeting in Vienna today, and it’s expected that the U.S. delegates will announce counter restrictions against Russia in retaliation for its attempts to limit the U.S. military’s vantage point on Russia’s Baltic operations. A top State Department official explained, “We want to induce Russia to come back into compliance with the treaty.”
The Treaty on Open Skies allowed for military aircraft from 34 member countries to perform observational flyovers across each other’s territories and take aerial photographs of military installations. Russia has taken full advantage of Open Skies recently, even flying over President Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey golf vacation last month. But that haven’t been playing quid pro quo, severely regulating U.S. flights over the secretive Kaliningrad Defensive Area, in defiance of the decades-old agreement.
Russia claims that it hasn’t done anything that the U.S. isn’t guilt of themselves. The Treaty is complex in its allowances for distance, altitude, and the number of flight passes over a given territory, and even small tweaks can seem like grand gestures, especially between old enemies. But, as is usually the case with Russia, there are hints of broader motives behind Moscow’s public quibbles. It’s possible Russia is still irritated that Open Skies gave the U.S. concrete evidence that Moscow’s annexation of the Ukraine was coming. Russia might simply want NATO to stop breathing down its neck as it flexes its expansionist muscles.
“Open Skies is part of a gradual breakdown in relations,” the same State Department official noted. “Russia wants to renegotiate the European security relationship. We’re seeing European security agreements erode.” He’s not the only one who thinks the goal is ultimately to whittle down the treaty until it’s practically meaningless. But there is one key difference between the present day state of Open Skies and when it was signed in 1992— satellite imagery has advanced by leaps and bounds, rendering military fly-overs not obsolete but certainly one option of many.
(Via the Wall Street Journal)