Russia is about to formally request permission from the US to fly surveillance planes with highly advanced cameras over the country, a move that has already alarmed American intelligence and military officials.
Russian and the US are both signatories to the 34-member Open Skies Treaty, which allows member countries to fly unarmed surveillance planes equipped with high resolution digital cameras over one another’s territory and foster transparency about military activities.
Moscow will submit its request to the Vienna-based Open Skies Consultative Commission on Monday, formally asking to be allowed to fly an aircraft with advanced sensors over the US, according to a congressional staffer said on condition of anonymity.
This means President Barack Obama’s administration must decide on granting Russians the permission, or denying them as according to the latest State Department compliance report, Moscow has failed to meet all its obligations under the treaty.
Obama’s decision is particularly important as Russia and the US are at odds over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
The request has sparked concern among different American officials as it comes at one of the most tension-filled times in the US-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.
"The treaty has become a critical component of Russia's intelligence collection capability directed at the United States," Admiral Cecil D. Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, wrote in a letter earlier this year to Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of a House subcommittee on strategic forces.
"In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defense and national security or national critical infrastructure," Haney noted.
According to an unnamed US State Department official cited by Fox News, treaty members were yet to receive notice of the Russian request. He also noted that the Russian plane with a "digital electro-optical sensor" would not be certificated before this summer as the treaty requires a 120-day notification in advance.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said at the hearing that "we think that they're going beyond the original intent of the treaty and we continue to look at this very, very closely."
Speaking at a congressional hearing on security cooperation in Europe in October, Steve Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for the bureau of arms control and the bureau of international security and nonproliferation, said that Russia complies with the treaty, but has "adopted a number of measures that are inconsistent with the spirit" of the accord.
According to Rademaker, Russia has imposed restrictions on surveillance over Moscow and Chechnya and near Abkhazia and South Ossetia, although the treaty obligates each member to make all of its territory available for aerial observation.