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Georgia dismisses Russia’s offer to allow observation flights under Open Skies Treaty

By Natalia Kochiashvili
Friday, May 29
The U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo issued a press statement on 21stof May, signaling the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies (OST), citing Russia’s “flagrant and continuous violation of the international agreement, including by not allowing observation flights within a 10-kilometer corridor along its border with occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia.”

The Secretary of State maintained that, by refusing to permit observation flights near Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region, Russia sought to advance false claims that these occupied territories are independent states.

“Russia didn't adhere to the treaty, so until they adhere, we will pull out,” Trump said, adding that there is ‘a very good chance to reach a new deal.’ “We're going to pull out, and they're going to come back and want to make a deal.”

The Secretary of State said that “it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in America's interest to remain a party to the OST.”

Pompeo accused Russia of repeatedly violating the treaty and using it to further its expansion goals by refusing to allow flights over "Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia" and asserting control over an airfield in Crimea. Echoing the president, he also suggested the U.S. might remain in the agreement if Russia changes its approach.

America’s chief diplomat noted that, through selective implementation, Russia has increasingly used OST as a tool to facilitate military coercion. Therefore, he stressed, “Russia weaponized the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”

“Without a change of course from the Kremlin,” Pompeo said, “the U.S. is set to withdraw from the Treaty in 6months’ time.”

Russia is awaiting a full explanation of the U.S. accusations, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in an interview with Russian TV. She added that the treaty includes mechanisms for ensuring compliance and presenting complaints – and that the U.S. will likely use diplomatic channels as well.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 22nd of May ‘deploring’ the U.S. decision to exit the OST and denying ‘accusations’ that Russia has not complied with the terms of the accord.

Russia claims it has acted ‘strictly in line with’ the Treaty provisions and rejected the U.S. request as an ‘ultimatum rather than a foundation for discussion.’

The next day, Georgian Foreign Ministry expressed support for the U.S.’s position, saying it has held consultations with the country's major strategic ally, as well as other signatories of the Treaty, on whether Georgia should remain a party to the agreement.

Minister Zalkaliani said in 2010, Russia imposed restrictions on observation flights in a 10-kilometer corridor off the boundaries occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, claiming these were now ‘independent countries’ and not parties to the Treaty. In Tbilisi’s view, this constituted a breach of the Treaty. In response, Georgia banned Russia from carrying out reconnaissance flights on its territory in 2012.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg supported the U.S. position, while France, together with 10 European countries, said it regretted the decision of the U.S., though shared its concern about the implementation of the Treaty clauses by Russia.

This was predicted by US state dep, noting that many U.S. allies in Europe want to keep the treaty in full force, Pompeo said, “If not for the value they place on the OST, we would likely have existed long ago.”

Note, that the treaty includes a number of stipulations that give host countries a level of control over the flights in their airspace, from designating which planes and airports can be used to flight distances. It also allows inspections of surveillance equipment. The signatories include most of America's NATO allies and Ukraine.

On 26th of May Russian MFA announced that Russia would greenlight the resumption of observation flights within a 10-kilometer zone along its border with the occupied Georgian regions, provided that Georgia returned the favor – by allowing Russian flights over its territory.

Next day Georgian MFA responded to Moscow’s statement on allowing Georgia to carry out reconnaissance flights along the boundaries of occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions in accordance with the OST, calling the statement ‘cynical’ and accusing Russia of trying to exploit the agreement for political gain.

The Georgian MFA cast doubt on Russia’s ulterior motives, suspecting that Moscow was seeking to use the accord as a means of legitimizing illegal regimes of Georgia’s occupied regions, as well as promote Tskhinvali and Sokhumi as independent parties to the agreement.

The Ministry noted that Russia voiced similar statement about resuming observation flights in 2018 at a meeting of the OST consultative commission, which it said demonstrated Russia’s inflexibility to ‘alter its political objectives’: “2 two years, Georgia has led consultations with its partners to dissuade Russia from its politicized stance and to prod it to fully complying with the Treaty – but in vain,” MFA’s statement read.

The OST is an international agreement designed to avert conflict and promote trust, allowing the signatory nations to carry out reconnaissance flights over the territories of each other.The 35 nation agreement allows the U.S., Russia and other countries to fly their aircraft over each other's territory – increasing transparency and reducing the chances for perilous miscalculations.

The idea of allowing other countries' surveillance aircraft to conduct flyovers was first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower, early in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But a deal didn't gain traction until after the Soviet republic collapsed; it was signed in 1992 and took effect 10 years later.

If the U.S. does exit, OST would be the third major international military pact Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from, coming after the president spiked the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.