The Ukraine Crisis Has Triggered Unprecedented International Spying From the Sky

With few eyes on the ground, concerned nations have taken to the skies to find out what’s going on at the Russia-Ukraine border.

National Journal
Marina Koren
May 1, 2014, 10:54 a.m.

The level of in­tel about where Rus­si­an troops are or aren’t these days is pretty murky. Mo­scow says not one troop is sta­tioned near east­ern Ukraine. Satel­lite im­agery and grainy pho­to­graphs show oth­er­wise. It’s all big mess.

Such glob­al-scale un­cer­tainty has led sev­er­al coun­tries to take to the skies to sort everything out. As a res­ult of the Ukraine crisis, an emer­gency pro­vi­sion in a massive mil­it­ary agree­ment was in­voked last month for the first time in its 12-year ex­ist­ence, State De­part­ment of­fi­cials said this week.

The Treaty on Open Skies, in ef­fect since 2002, is a peace­ful pro­gram for con­duct­ing un­armed, aer­i­al sur­veil­lance flights over the en­tire ter­rit­ory of its 34 mem­ber states, which in­cludes the United States, Rus­sia, and Ukraine, as well as most European and some Asi­an na­tions.

Un­til re­cently, all flights un­der that treaty had been routine. But in March, Ukraine re­ques­ted two “ex­traordin­ary” flight ob­ser­va­tions over Ukrain­i­an ter­rit­ory to find out wheth­er Rus­si­an forces had moved bey­ond Crimea, ac­cord­ing to An­ita Friedt, act­ing as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State at the de­part­ment’s Bur­eau of Arms Con­trol, Veri­fic­a­tion and Com­pli­ance.

In re­sponse, Sweden, joined by mil­it­ary per­son­nel from Nor­way, Bel­gi­um, and the United King­dom, flew from Kiev to Odessa on March 13. The next day, U.S. air­craft, along with Ca­na­dian and Es­to­ni­an ob­serv­ers, sur­veyed Ukraine’s bor­der with Rus­sia. The week after that, Rus­sia al­lowed Ukraine to fly over its ter­rit­ory near their shared bor­der.

“These flights provided re­as­sur­ance to Ukraine and demon­strated our com­mit­ment to work with al­lies to up­hold key ele­ments of the Euro-At­lantic se­cur­ity ar­chi­tec­ture,” Friedt said Tues­day dur­ing a House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing on U.S.-Rus­sia nuc­le­ar-arms ne­go­ti­ations.

This week, the U.S. is con­duct­ing five ad­di­tion­al ex­traordin­ary flights over east­ern Ukraine, and a num­ber of U.S. al­lies are pre­par­ing some of their own.

As the stan­doff in East­ern Europe con­tin­ues, the re­gion’s air­space is go­ing to see a lot more planes.

This is not sur­pris­ing. Aer­i­al ob­ser­va­tion is cru­cial dur­ing re­gion­al crises, es­pe­cially when in­ter­na­tion­al mon­it­ors can’t get on the ground to wit­ness the con­flict firsthand. The prac­tice helps to loc­ate mil­it­ary forces and track their move­ments, and provides fast im­agery ana­lys­is. It even gives coun­tries a con­crete show­ing of con­cern — if you’re send­ing planes on a fact-find­ing mis­sion some­where, you care about what’s hap­pen­ing there.

And when it comes to the Treaty on Open Skies, every­one in­volved is fair game. The agree­ment gives all par­ti­cipants, re­gard­less of land­mass, from be­hemoth Rus­sia to tiny Bel­gi­um, the op­tion to gath­er in­form­a­tion about oth­er coun­tries’ mil­it­ary forces.

And trans­par­ency is big — the treaty stip­u­lates that in­form­a­tion that one na­tion finds dur­ing aer­i­al sur­veil­lance must be shared with all mem­bers. A joint U.S.-Ger­man mis­sion on March 24 over the Rus­si­an-Ukrain­i­an bor­der provided to all treaty par­ti­cipants im­ages that helped sub­stan­ti­ate Rus­si­an mil­it­ary activ­ity in Bel­gorod, Boguchar, and Rostov — which Mo­scow has denied.

The concept of mu­tu­al aer­i­al sur­veil­lance was first pro­posed by Pres­id­ent Eis­en­hower to So­viet Premi­er Nikolai Bul­gan­in in 1955. The So­vi­ets, nat­ur­ally, re­jec­ted the idea. Dec­ades later, Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush took up the ini­ti­at­ive, and it was signed by mem­bers of the North At­lantic Treaty Or­gan­iz­a­tion and the Warsaw Pact in 1992. The treaty took ef­fect in 2002.

The treaty’s found­ing year co­in­cided with the crisis in the former Re­pub­lic of Yugoslavia, which would split the coun­try in two. The con­flict led world lead­ers to con­sider the be­ne­fit of con­tinu­ous aer­i­al ob­ser­va­tions for fu­ture sim­il­ar situ­ations. After some ne­go­ti­ations, treaty par­ti­cipants agreed on a pro­vi­sion that would al­low con­cerned parties to re­quest ex­traordin­ary ob­ser­va­tion flights above routine level.

So, if you’re con­cerned about the flow of in­form­a­tion dur­ing a crisis like, say, one coun­try’s takeover of an­oth­er’s ter­rit­ory, you can put in a re­quest for spe­cial flights with the Open Skies Con­sultat­ive Com­mis­sion. But re­mem­ber: You can fly, but you can’t hide. The in­form­a­tion your mis­sion gath­ers must be shared with your fel­low treaty par­ti­cipants — even your en­emies.

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