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.
What We're Following See More »
"The Senate standstill over a stopgap spending bill appeared headed toward a resolution on Friday night. Senators who were holding up the measure said votes are expected later in the evening. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin had raised objections to the continuing resolution because it did not include a full year's extension of retired coal miners' health benefits," but Manchin "said he and other coal state Democrats agreed with Senate Democratic leaders during a caucus meeting Thursday that they would not block the continuing resolution, but rather use the shutdown threat as a way to highlight the health care and pension needs of the miners."
Donald Trump transition team announced Friday afternoon that top supporter Rudy Giuliani has taken himself out of the running to be in Trump's cabinet, though CNN previously reported that it was Trump who informed the former New York City mayor that he would not be receiving a slot. While the field had seemingly been narrowed last week, it appears to be wide open once again, with ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson the current favorite.
The House has completed it's business for 2016 by passing a spending bill which will keep the government funded through April 28. The final vote tally was 326-96. The bill's standing in the Senate is a bit tenuous at the moment, as a trio of Democratic Senators have pledged to block the bill unless coal miners get a permanent extension on retirement and health benefits. The government runs out of money on Friday night.
The Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act today, sending the $618 billion measure to President Obama. The president vetoed the defense authorization bill a year ago, but both houses could override his disapproval this time around.