The U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump have moved to block funding for an international military surveillance treaty, prompting a sharp reaction from Russian officials.
U.S. lawmakers, accusing Russia of not complying with the Open Skies Treaty, included a provision to suspend funding for carrying out the treaty in a $717 billion national-defense bill that Trump signed into law on August 13.
That prompted some Russian officials on August 14 to accuse the United States of breaking the treaty, which since 2002 has allowed 34 signatory states to send unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory. Some Russian legislators even charged that Washington is secretly trying to build up its weapons programs.
Under the new U.S. law, funding may be restored only after the Trump administration certifies that Russia is in "complete compliance with [its] obligations" under the treaty.
Washington has accused Moscow of violating the treaty by recently cutting the number of air bases the United States is allowed to observe and setting a limit on the number of observational flights permitted over Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave in Eastern Europe.
Located between Poland and Lithuania, there have many reports of increased military activity in Kaliningrad, with satellite images even suggesting a build-up of nuclear facilities there.
Poland, Lithuania, and other NATO members have expressed concern about Russia’s intentions, especially following its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in their battle against government forces.
The move to pressure Russia over its compliance with the treaty comes a week after the United States announced new sanctions against Russia, citing its alleged use of a chemical weapon to poison a former Russian spy in England.
Russian officials reacted quickly to the latest punitive move out of Washington, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov telling Russian media that Moscow "regrets" the U.S. decision.
"This is an attempt to hide everything the Americans will be preparing in the course of a new arms race," Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s International Relations Committee, told The Moscow Times.
Retired Russian Lieutenant General Yevgeny Buzhinsky told RT that the move was the latest evidence of "anti-Russian hysteria" in Washington.
"They could do anything on the back of this anti-Russian hysteria. They could shoot themselves in the foot or head," he said.
Despite charges from some Russian officials that the United States is essentially suspending participation in the treaty, a U.S. State Department spokesman said late on August 14 that the United States remained "committed" to carrying out the accord.
Last year, the State Department described the Open Skies Treaty as "designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them."
Besides requiring certification that Russia is complying with the treaty, the new defense bill also requires the administration to report on the annual cost of "countermeasures to mitigate potential abuses of observation flights" by Russia over Europe and the United States.
A Russian reconnaissance mission garnered headlines in the United States a year ago when an aircraft flew over Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Dayton, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, with some U.S. politicians charging that the mission was intended to "troll" Trump at a time of high international tensions.
However, Pentagon officials have insisted that such aerial observations are perfectly routine and have been going on for years, with Russia estimated to have conducted more than 165 such missions since the treaty went into effect.
"They usually come in, and they list out what locations they want to fly over," a Pentagon official told Politico after the August 2017 incident. "We put together the flight plan and with a few exceptions — safety-wise or weather-wise — they are allowed to fly over pretty much the entire territory."
With reporting by Newsweek, Express Co., and Reuters
Source: Radio Free Europe