Air Recon Treaty Lets Countries Spy On Ukraine and Russia—Legally
International agreement allows recon flights over 34 states
In 1992, NATO members and former Warsaw Pact nations signed an agreement allowing regular reconnaissance flights over their territories. Now, Europe and the U.S. are taking advantage of the Open Skies Treaty to monitor the increasingly violent crisis in Ukraine.
The treaty was supposed to prevent open warfare by letting countries keep tabs on each other. More than once, a lack of clear communication almost turned the Cold War hot.
During the tensest decades of the mid-20th century, America and the Soviet Union worried that exercises and other ostensibly peaceful deployments could in fact be mobilizations for World War III.
The point of Open Skies—which finally came into effect in 2002—is to make sure no one ever gets confused.
Now, member states are monitoring whether Russian forces are preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has held a number of major exercises near the shared border.
In March, the U.S. and several European nations flew four Open Skies missions over Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine also flew a mission of its own over Russia under the treaty.
On March 19, Romania flew a so-called “quota flight” over Ukraine. The treaty’s 34 participating nations must each allow in a certain number of observation flights each year.
The next day, a team of observers from the U.S. and Germany used one these regularly scheduled missions to check on Russian military activity.
The Russian government must allow treaty signatories to fly over its territory up to 42 times each year. Ukraine must allow 12 Open Skies missions annually.
The treaty’s Annex L also allows participating nations to request access at any time through the Open Skies Consultative Commission. These flights do not count in any way toward a country’s annual quota.
Sweden used its rights under Annex L to fly over Ukraine on March 13. The following day, the U.S. used these special provisions to fly over the country.
Ukraine’s mission over Russia on March 20 was also authorized under Annex L. The Ukrainian air force actually operates its own specialized Open Skies aircraft, depicted in this picture by plane-spotter Igor Bubin.
However, the treaty goes both ways. Strained U.S.-Russia relations are already causing problems.
In April, the Kremlin canceled a flight by Czech and American observers on a technicality. The mission eventually flew later in the month.
Now, American authorities are suggesting a new Russian plane fails to meet the agreement’s requirements. The treaty has very specific rules on how precise the plane’s cameras and other equipment can be.
Observers worry these tit-for-tat gripes could up-end Open Skies entirely. If that happened, Western powers would lose an important tool for monitoring crises like that in Ukraine.
At the moment, Open Skies continues to function as intended. American and Norwegian observers are scheduled to fly over Russia later this week.