Russia Threatens to Cut U.S. Military's Observation Flights

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gestures as she attends a news briefing in Moscow on October 6, 2015. Moscow is threatening to curb the airspace it allows scheduled U.S. observation flights, and Zakharova is blaming Washington for triggering this reaction. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Russia is looking to add another twist to the saga of tit-for-tat sanctions that it has traded with Washington in recent years. This time, patrol flights intended to boost mutual trust are edging near the chopping block as Moscow said it is adding its own restrictions and the U.S. only has itself to blame.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it has informed Washington that after the U.S. had accused Russia of violating the patrol flights treaty and "created maximum inconveniences" for the Russian mission, the Kremlin will set up more limitations on U.S. military flights.

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The head of the foreign ministry's North America department, Georgy Borisenko, told state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday that as of next month it will roll back on terms from the Treaty on Open Skies, drafted in 1992.

The transatlantic deal was a confidence-building measure by which the U.S., Russia and dozens of other states have flown unarmed, reconnaissance jets over each other's territories since 2002. The flights are meant to calm fears of military buildup, but as Moscow and Washington's relationship has deteriorated, compliance with the treaty has been at risk.

Moscow is threatening to curb the airspace it allows scheduled U.S. observation flights, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova is blaming Washington for triggering this reaction. She said it was the "absolutely groundless" U.S. accusations that Russia is violating the treaty in the first place that have resulted in Moscow now reneging on its obligations. The new limitations would affect nighttime flyovers in the airspace above three Russian airfields, she said.

"Stemming from the principle of reciprocity, Russia was forced to undertake adequate measures of a procedural nature," she told RIA on Thursday, suggesting Moscow is responding to similar limits enforced by the U.S.

While Washington has repeatedly introduced punitive sanctions to castigate Russian actions, including for its annexation of Crimea and efforts to undermine the 2016 presidential election, there has been no official announcement of a rollback on the Treaty of the Open Skies by the U.S. government. For years, the U.S. State Department has complained that Russia was obstructing jets from getting as close to the ground as the treaty allows. Three airfields, one of which was the heavily armed western port of Kaliningrad, have been the site of reported Russian noncompliance.

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Earlier this year a U.S. diplomat repeated the complaint after the U.S. had allowed Russian surveillance jets to hover above Washington landmarks and pass over the resort where President Donald Trump was taking time off. The official told the The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. could soon limit this access if Russia also did not provide other observation aircraft with the agreed freedom to fly.

At the time, retired General Aleksandr Peresypkin, who is on the Russian delegation responsible for discussing the treaty and other European security matters, said the accusations distracted from general noncompliance.

"We have serious claims that a number of participating states are interfering with observation flights," Peresypkin said. One Russian accusation stated that in July, the U.S. forced a Russian observation jet to increase altitude above Alaska. "The U.S. is resourceful in reducing access to its airspace," he added.

A top Russian diplomat, Mikhail Ulyanov, said then that Moscow would introduce its own restrictions, should the U.S. punish Russia's alleged violation of the treaty. Its terms, he said, "are not always up for only singular interpretation."

The U.S. Department of State was not immediately available for comment on the Russian Foreign Ministry's statement.