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Russia could be using a 'trust-building exercise' to send spy planes over North America

After more than a decade of friendly cooperation, the Treaty on Open Skies appears to be falling apart, as America is accusing Russia of using the deal between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries to spy.

by Justin Ling
Jul 6 2016, 1:45pm

Pilots in the cockpit of the C-130J aircraft. (Royal Canadian Air Force)

For years, Russia and the West have been flying spy missions over each other's territory and, for years, both sides have been okay with the mutually-agreed-upon snooping. But Russia is taking the spying to the next level, and American lawmakers are worried.

Since the 2002 ratification of the Treaty on Open Skies, 34 nations — Canada, America, most of Europe, Russia, and Turkey — have flown observation missions over each other's territory, largely as a trust-building exercise between the two sides previously divided by the Berlin Wall. The optical sensors onboard the surveillance planes allow all countries in the treaty to ensure that their neighbors aren't building up troops along their border, or readying for an offensive strike.

"In recent years, instead of using the Treaty for its intended purpose, Russia is using its Open Skies flights to expand its espionage capabilities."

But the treaty, adopted under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, with Canada and Hungary managing the treaty and providing administrative support, had long been a quiet success of diplomacy between the former rivals. That cooperation, it seems, is breaking down.

Last February, Reuters reported that Russia was moving to upgrade its surveillance aircraft with high-tech digital sensors. Late last month, an expert panel that manages the treaty signed-off on Russia's new surveillance cameras.

With the new digital cameras, Russia "will be able to maintain this technological advantage over Canada, Italy, France, the UK and the US, who still use analog cameras, for several years," according to Kremlin-owned Sputnik News.

America eyed the move as provocative, but not surprising.

"In recent years, instead of using the Treaty for its intended purpose, Russia is using its Open Skies flights to expand its espionage capabilities," reads an open letter to President Barack Obama from the chairmen of the Congressional committees on foreign affairs, intelligence, and armed services. The letter continues: "Allowing Russia to upgrade the sensors used in these flights to digital technology would only make this worse."

To make the treaty effective, member states are only allowed to do as many active missions — that is, flying over other countries' territory — as passive missions — allowing another state to fly over their territory. States are also required to share all the information they receive from the flights, upon request; and they usually allow for an observer from the passive state to oversee the mission.

Even so, a 2015 report from the State Department, quoted in the open letter, suggests that Russia is simply ignoring those caveats in the treaty.

The report alleges that Russia is restricting surveillance over certain areas, including Moscow, Kaliningrad, and Chechnya, and is "refusing to provide required copies of imagery collected during flights over the United States."

The report concluded that "the treaty is becoming a one-sided agreement that benefits only one signatory."

The Russian defense ministry has downplayed the accusations. Retired Lieutenant General Evgeny Buzhinsky, who previously handed the treaty for Moscow, said the American fretting was largely misplaced. "US Congress is US Congress. There are many people there, who do not fully understand the treaty or how it works," he told the Vzglyad newspaper. "[Everyone] adhered to the treaty. Everything was fine. Everything will remain as it used to be. Russia simply switched [to digital]."

Related: Russia Has Made a Questionably Sincere Offer to Help Put Out Canada's Forest Fires

The entire concept of the treaty is a bit outmoded. With the proliferation of high-quality satellite imagery, monitoring troop movements or artillery build-up is relatively simple.

Citizen journalist Eliot Higgins, under the pen name Bellingcat, has even managed to track military assets worldwide with open source data — he and a team of researchers from around the globe were able to identify, with relative certainty, the Russian rocket launcher that downed the MH-17 airliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine.

But, despite speculation that America could withdraw from the treaty outright — effectively cutting off one of the last-remaining bright spots in relations between the White House and the Kremlin — the missions nevertheless continue.

From July 4 to July 9, a Canadian C-130J aircraft, which is usually used to transport cargo, will be flying over Russia's far east Yakutia region, with both American and Russian military personnel onboard, to run the surveillance mission.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling