Last month, a Russian spy plane conducting a reconnaissance flight drew the attention of Washington D.C. residents as it flew as low as 3,700 feet while gathering intelligence on locations like Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where Air Force One is maintained, the White House, and Camp David. Americans were clearly concerned about the low flying presence of the Russian Tu-154, which carried no armaments, but was clearly loitering in areas most aircraft are not authorized to enter.
To the surprise of many Americans, this seemingly egregious violation of American air space was actually authorized and tracked, perhaps begrudgingly, by officials from the U.S. Department of Defense, who were honoring a unilateral agreement established between 34 signatory nations, called the Open Skies Treaty. This treaty, first established on March 24th, 1992, permits each participating nation the right to conduct aerial observations of military assets possessed by other signing members. In effect, we tolerate these flights in exchange for the right to conduct our own… the thing is, Russia has not been honoring their part of the deal, particularly in the Russian satellite region of Kaliningrad, which, along with Belarus, creates a choke point for NATO allies in the Baltics.
U.S. officials have repeatedly addressed this issue with their Russian counterparts and, this week, news of those complaints began to hit the press, prompting a lengthy response from Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Thursday.
“First, Russia has imposed restrictions, allegedly unlawfully, on observation flights over the Kaliningrad Region. According to the United States, this precludes effective observation of Russia’s territory during the approved number of flights.” Zahharova said to a gathering of journalists. “Moreover, NATO countries have accused Russia of a desire to ‘conceal’ military facilities near Kaliningrad from Open Skies cameras.”
Concerns about Russian military assets in Kaliningrad were heightened last week, as thousands of Russian troops, along with heavy equipment, poured into Belarus on the Eastern border of Latvia and Lithuania, effectively placing a sizeable military force on either side of the small NATO nations.
It is much simpler than this, though. Some of our partners, who have the right to make observation flights at a maximum distance of 5,500 kilometres, used this right over the Kaliningrad Region, flying over it far and wide, which created problems in the limited airspace of the region and hindered the operation of Khrabrovo International Airport.”
In effect, Russia hopes to convince the world that is has limited reconnaissance flights over Kaliningrad because the air traffic was just too much for the small region, despite their apparent willingness to fly low, and slow around Washington D.C., a notably smaller area with significantly higher air traffic. Adding insult to insult, the spokeswoman went on to suggest that American officials decrying Russia’s limitations of flights in Kaliningrad, as well as two other Russian regions, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
“It gives me pleasure to listen to our American colleagues’ complaints, considering that they have assumed their positions only recently and are not aware of many details. We are willing to help them clarify the situation. They only need to ask.”
She went on to make pointed remarks, seemingly directed at President Trump himself, claiming the U.S. no longer had the right to fly over an area near the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, claiming that the denial is rooted in the U.S.’ unwillingness to recognize nearby regions as “no longer Georgian states,” meaning the area is too close to the border of a non-signatory member nation to permit the overflights.
She went on to add, “I am saying this for those of our US colleagues who assumed office only recently.”
Finally, she declared that these complaints must truly be intended to distract the media from American and allied violations of the Open Skies treaty, which she claimed could fill an entire page, but neglected to directly cite any in particular. Of course, in what has become a Russian talking point in recent months, she went on to threaten Russian retaliation for any U.S. effort to hinder their own flights over U.S. air space.
Thus far, there has been no official statement levied by the U.S. government indicating that the Trump administration intends to cease its cooperation with the treaty, though murmurs of limiting some Russian flights have surfaced from unnamed sources.
Image courtesy of the Kremlin