Flying blind: Russia blocks U.S. from treaty-approved spy flights

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The Russian government this week canceled a planned U.S. surveillance flight over Russian territory in a bid to limit spying on massed troops facing off against Ukraine and Eastern Europe, according to U.S. officials.

The overflight mission was scheduled for April 14 to April 16 under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, but Russia’s government notified the State Department 72 hours before the scheduled flight that it would not be permitted.

The cancellation is unusual because the sole reason for putting off such treaty-approve surveillance is flight safety, such as bad weather.

Until this week, the United States and other European allies who are a party to the 34-nation treaty were conducting weekly overflights above Russia during the past month.

The Russian cancellation of the flight comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine, where Russian troops militarily annexed the Crimean peninsula last month and continue to foment pro-Russian unrest in the eastern part of the country.

The cancellation further undermines the Obama administration’s arms control-centered security policies. Russia recently was accused of violating and circumventing other arms treaties, including the 2010 New START arms treaty and the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Until this week, the overflights had been providing close up aerial observation of Russian military deployments near Ukraine and near NATO allies in Eastern Europe where concerns are increasing about Russian military aggression.

U.S. intelligence agencies are continuing to closely monitor Russian troop movements using imagery satellites. The Pentagon has said the tens of thousands of Russian troops, along with tanks and armored vehicles, have been “staging” in recent weeks in apparent preparation for military action.

Recent intelligence reports also revealed that Moscow is building up military forces in the Crimea, where significant numbers of T-72 tanks were observed being shipped on rail cars. U.S. officials fear the Crimea buildup is part of plans for a large-scale military operation against eastern Ukraine.

Under the Open Skies Treaty, the sole permitted reason for canceling such overflights is flight safety and U.S. officials said that was not the reason for the Russians’ action. “They’re getting ready to do something [to Ukraine] and they don’t want us looking,” said one official familiar with the canceled flight.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on the canceled overflight. However, she said the United States and European allies have conducted Open Skies flights over Russia each week for the past month. The flights are “providing useful insights into Russian military activity near Ukraine.”

Russia has deployed between 40,000 and 80,000 troops near Ukraine’s eastern border. Other Russian troops are said to be deployed in areas close to the Baltic

The canceled flight also followed reports that the Obama administration security officials are opposing plans to permit Russian Open Skies flights over U.S. territory with new monitoring aircraft outfitted with advanced sensors.

The new Russian aircraft being considered for U.S. certification is the Tu-214ON, one of two new surveillance aircraft to be used for Open Skies overflights. The aircraft will be equipped with digital imagery equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared gear.

All flights under the treaty require 72 hours advance notification. The advance notice allows participating states to place sensitive or secret military equipment in hangers or other hidden locations, but allows for large forces and weapons to be displayed.

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