September 27, 2018

You saw a ship on the news, but how do YOU find it using OSINT?

I've had some requests to walk people through, with more detail, how to look up ship-related information, and I'm not hiding any methods, the whole idea is for YOU to be able to loo up your own information for free (or for cheap), and not need to launch your own spy satellite.
(but if you have the chance, you really should - I'm looking at you Elon)

There are many, many, ways to skin this cat. I'm just going to go over one way as an example - this is by no means an exhaustive how-to. There are marine ship registries, forums, accident reports, all sorts of other resources - but I'm going to show you and focus on AIS.

Let's take an article which was in the news and walk you through the process. The first thing is to figure out what is the subset of vessels, out of the tens of thousands presently at sea, that you're interested in. You need to scope out the breadth of your investigation. Here is a good start;

St Helena's cherished lifeline ship to return as anti-piracy armory
Joe Brock - APRIL 17, 2018 / 10:38 PM (original here)
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The RMS St. Helena, Britain’s last working postal ship, was for nearly three decades the main source of contact between one of humanity’s remotest islands and the outside world.
Now the ship, cherished by the 4,500 residents of British-ruled St. Helena, will start a new life as a floating armory, packed with automatic weapons, bullet-proof jackets and night vision goggles, all stored for maritime security operatives.
Renamed the MNG Tahiti, the 340-foot ship will undergo some tweaks before sailing to the Gulf of Oman where it will be used to ferry guns and guards to passing vessels navigating stretches of water lurking with pirates, its new operator said on Tuesday.
“The ship is good to go with a few adjustments,” said Mark Gray, a former British Royal Marine and founder of floating armory firm MNG Maritime. “By the middle of the year we hope to have her operating.”
Tahiti Shipping, a subsidiary of MNG Maritime, bought the ship for an undisclosed fee on Tuesday, the St. Helena government said in a statement.
The construction last year of a commercial airport on the isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic rendered the 156-passenger ship obsolete, prompting St. Helena authorities to put it up for sale and begin planning a gala farewell.
Before weekly flights to South Africa began in October, a five-night voyage to Cape Town on the RMS St. Helena was the only major transport route off an island made famous as the windswept outpost where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died.
The yellow-funnelled ship was purpose-built by the British government in 1989 to service the island and is the last of a royal mail fleet that once connected the far-flung tentacles of the old British Empire.
Its final voyage was marked with a public holiday on St. Helena, with flag-waving crowds gathering on the rocky coastline to catch one last glimpse of the ship that had delivered them everything from car parts to Christmas turkeys.
A flotilla of fishing vessels and yachts flanked the ship with those on board popping champagne corks as plumes of balloons were released into the sky to cheers from St. Helena residents, known locally as “Saints”.
“I fully appreciate the role this vessel has played in all Saints’ lives,” MNG Maritime’s Gray said. “It is not a responsibility we take on lightly. We will continue to treat her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.”
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Mark Heinrich (Reuters)
After reading that, do you have more questions than you started with? I sure do. First, how many ships like this does MNG Maritime and their subsidiaries have? What about other floating armouries? ...and where are they? Someone must have already made a list, hopefully with IMO or MMSI numbers which definitively identify the ships that might have duplicate names.

Web search engines like Google and Duck Duck Go will help you greatly, since none of these operations are in any way secret or covert, they are publicly discussed and licensed. These are extremely heavily armed vessels moored in strategic locations around choke points where there is high pirate activity.

Here is a fantastic resource:

"Stockpiles at Sea, Floating Armouries in the Indian Ocean"
written by Ioannis Chapsos and Paul Holtom

Google some more more and you'll soon find this:

From those, you should have a list of a few dozen Vessels of Interest (see what I did there?)

Put all the vessel information you can find in a spreadsheet; with a little luck copy & paste works.

I'm going to use the IMO numbers because they're tied to the ship, whereas the MMSI number change with the registration and ownership. Sometimes you have access to one, or the other - always record both, and the callsign if you have it. Keeping a spreadsheet of the ships you've put information together about is essential. I recommend using Google Docs.

Now we come to the portion of our lesson; 

Create an account, and if you're really into this, pay your yearly pound of flesh and get access to more than the free account offers.  First of all, you need a "fleet" of 50. Their basic account would provide you that. The "fleet" concept groups vessels in whatever category you would like, and allows you to control them in bulk groups easily.

Here are all the IMOs from the aforementioned floating armouries:


First, search for one of those ships, any one

Click the result, it will open up a details page on that ship

You want to make a new fleet, so click the down arrow beside "Add to default fleet" and scroll to the bottom, select "Add to new fleet". Name it something obvious, like "Floating Armouries"

Now, click the little person icon at the top right, and pull down to "My Fleets"

Select the Floating Armouries fleet you created previously. Notice the "import" line? That's what you want! That's why having a spreadsheet with the list of ships you're tracking is very handy.

Now you're presented with a big empty box for IMO or MMSI numbers; paste the whole list in that box. Any duplicates will disappear, so don't be too careful.

Import, and voila - you have a MarineTraffic fleet with all the Floating Armouries in it.

Then, you can show only the vessels in your fleet at the map view, and exclude all the others so you're not distracted.

You're ready to follow these, or other ships that match your interests, around the globe.

Did I cheat by using a pre-made list that someone else already published in a PDF? Yes. Absolutely. OSINT is all about that sort of "cheating". Use what others have already blazed the trail with, and add to that. There is no reason to start from scratch, but remember to both protect your sources, and credit them - those two things may seem at odds, because they are. I've offended people both by crediting, and not crediting them. I try to error on the side of giving credit publicly, unless someone tells me not to.

Happy hunting!

September 15, 2018

In 2009 the US Navy announced they identified two Russian submarines beyond the US EEZ.

NATO Name: Akula aka Project 971 "Щука-Б"
Unknown photo credit 
The Russian Navy submarine hysteria being propagated from questionable sources and whisper campaigns over social media are out of control. The latest tactic I've noticed isn't a new one, but it's being spun a new way. Here are the original, reputable, reports of the incident from 2009, which is presently being hyped by unknown anonymous actors, clearly in bad faith, as something that's happened in the recent past, and evidence of the resurgent Russian Navy's hostility, or something.
(Apologies to the authors, highlighted bits to draw your eye and make this quicker for everyone, this is not a criticism of the NYT, WaPo, Reuters, or CNSNews):
Russian Subs Patrolling Off East Coast of U.S.
By MARK MAZZETTI and THOM SHANKER (New York Times) 2009-08-04
WASHINGTON — A pair of nuclear-powered Russian attack submarines has been patrolling off the eastern seaboard of the United States in recent days, a rare mission that has raised concerns inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies about a more assertive stance by the Russian military.
The episode has echoes of the cold war era, when the United States and the Soviet Union regularly parked submarines off each other’s coasts to steal military secrets, track the movements of their underwater fleets — and be poised for war.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union all but eliminated the ability of the Russian Navy to operate far from home ports, making the current submarine patrols thousands of miles from Russia more surprising for military officials and defense policy experts.
“I don’t think they’ve put two first-line nuclear subs off the U.S. coast in about 15 years,” said Norman Polmar, a naval historian and submarine warfare expert.
The submarines are of the Akula class, a counterpart to the Los Angeles class attack subs of the United States Navy, and not one of the larger submarines that can launch intercontinental nuclear missiles.According to Defense Department officials, one of the Russian submarines remained in international waters on Tuesday about 200 miles off the coast of the United States. The location of the second remained unclear. One senior official said the second submarine traveled south in recent days toward Cuba, while another senior official with access to reports on the surveillance mission said it had sailed away in a northerly direction.
The Pentagon and intelligence officials spoke anonymously to describe the effort to track the Russian submarines, which has not been publicly announced.
President Obama spoke by telephone with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia on Tuesday, but it was not clear whether the subject of the submarines came up, although another source of friction between the two countries did. Mr. Medvedev called Mr. Obama to wish him a happy birthday and the White House said the president used the opportunity to urge Russia to work through diplomatic channels to resolve rising tensions with Georgia.
The submarine patrols come as Moscow tries to shake off the embarrassment of the latest failed test of the Bulava missile, a long-range weapon that was test fired from a submarine in the Arctic on July 15. The failed missile test was the sixth since 2005, and some experts see Russia’s assertiveness elsewhere as a gambit by the military to prove its continued relevance.
I highlighted the important bits; and to paraphrase, there were two Russian submarines, in the Atlantic ocean, outside US territorial waters, and beyond the EEZ, exactly where they wanted them to be.

Another source, the Wall Street Journal:
Russian Subs Seen Off U.S. East Coast
By Peter Spiegel Updated 2009-08-05 11:59 p.m. ET (Wall Street Journal)
WASHINGTON -- Two Russian attack submarines were detected patrolling the waters off the East Coast of the U.S. in recent days, including one that came as close as 200 miles offshore, according to U.S. military officials.
Although Pentagon officials monitoring the subs' movements didn't consider them threatening, one senior military official said the patrols were unusual, given the weakened state of the Russian navy and the failure of Moscow to conduct such missions in years.
"Is it unusual? Yes, but we don't view it as provocative at all," the official said, adding that both subs remained in international waters at all times. The patrols were reported on the Web site of the New York Times.
During the Cold War, subs from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union regularly patrolled the North Atlantic in an elaborate game of naval brinkmanship intended to track rival fleets and position themselves strategically in case of war.
The senior military official said the two Russian vessels were nuclear-powered Akula class submarines, which were used during the Cold War to track North Atlantic Treaty Organization vessels and, in the event of war, attack enemy subs and ships with torpedoes and missiles. Only larger ballistic-missile subs are used for nuclear-weapons launches.
The Times reported that one of the subs had recently made port in Cuba, but the official said the U.S. has no confirmation of that move and that the second sub is believed instead to have remained close to Greenland.
The submarine patrols are the latest series of recent military operations by the Russians -- many of which Moscow dropped in the years following the Cold War -- which analysts believe are an attempt to reassert the stature of its military.
Last year, a Russian long-range strategic bomber buzzed the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz and its accompanying flotilla as the Pearl Harbor-based strike group was patrolling the Pacific.
Two years ago, the Royal Air Force scrambled fighters to intercept Russian strategic "Bear" bombers that were flying patrols close to British airspace.

Reuters had the story too:
Russian general shrugs off U.S. submarine worries
Dmitry Solovyov - 2009-08-05 8:05 AM
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A senior Russian general on Wednesday shrugged off Washington’s concern about Cold War-style patrols of Russian nuclear submarines off the U.S. coast, saying it was business as usual for Moscow to keep its navy in shape.
“I don’t know if it’s news to anyone,” Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia’s deputy chief of general staff, told a news conference. “The navy should not stay idle at its moorings.”
He was commenting on a report in the New York Times on Tuesday which said two nuclear-powered Russian attack submarines had been patrolling off the Eastern seaboard of the United States in a mission that was rare for post-Cold War times.
The newspaper said the submarines had not taken any provocative action beyond their presence outside U.S. territorial waters, but Pentagon officials voiced wariness over Russia’s motivation for ordering such an unusual mission.
Nogovitsyn said: “As for their statements, we can also talk about them (U.S. submarines), where they occur from time to time.
“So this (Russian patrols) is a normal process, and those making such statements understand this pretty well.”

Russia, keen to play a more assertive role on the world stage, relies heavily on its still formidable nuclear triad of land-based missiles, nuclear submarines and strategic bombers.
In 2007 it resumed Cold War-style flights of nuclear-capable bombers across the Atlantic.
“This is our right — we felt bored making circles along our internal routes,” Nogovitsyn, a military pilot, said of the decision to resume flights of strategic bombers along NATO borders.
“And you remember how much clamor this caused at the time — just because we started going out on combat patrols,” he said. “But I must tell you that the battle potential of our strategic aviation has only seriously risen since then.”
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Patrick Graham

CNSNews managed to compile the most complete picture, because their article was three days after the story broke, but I think it still provides a very good view, from the time.
U.S. Unconcerned About Russian Subs off East Coast; Moscow Says Patrol Is Routine
By Patrick Goodenough | August 6, 2009 | 5:03 AM EDT
( – The Russian and United States militaries both played down the significance of two Russian attack submarines patrolling in international waters off the East Coast of the U.S., although the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that it had been years since Russian subs had extended their reach into the region.

“It is the first time … in roughly a decade that we’ve seen this kind of behavior,” Defense Department Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.

The New York Times reported that a pair of nuclear-powered submarines – an Akula-class attack boat and a newer Akula-II variant – had been patrolling off the eastern seaboard in recent days.

Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command said in a statement the submarines were being monitored during transit.

Morrell made it clear the Defense Department was not worried by the incident.

“While it is interesting and noteworthy that they are in this part of the world, it doesn’t pose any threat and it doesn’t cause any concern. So we watch it, we’re mindful of it, but it doesn’t necessitate anything more than that.”

Morrell said as long as the Russian vessels remained in international waters and behaved in a responsible way, they were free to do so.

“Have we had our submarines, our ships off the Russian coast from time to time? Sure. We operate in international waters freely, and they are entitled to do so as well.”

U.S. territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the shore.

Morrell noted President Obama’s desire to “re-set” relations with Moscow and his comments stressing that the days of Cold War rivalry were past. The U.S. military did not “automatically see threatening motives” in the Russian action, the spokesman added.

In Moscow, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed “high-ranking Russian Navy source” as disputing the notion that the presence of the subs so far from home was particularly unusual.

“Even during the fleet’s most difficult times in the mid-1990s, Russian submarines put to sea on active alert for patrols,” the official said. “This practice continues to this day.”

A former top Russian Navy officer told Interfax that the presence of submarines from both countries near each other’s waters was routine.

“U.S. submarines nearly enter our territorial waters near the Kola Peninsula [near Murmansk in Russia’s far north-west] when they receive such a task, and we always detect this,” said Admiral Igor Kasatonov, former first deputy commander of the Navy.

A senior military official told a news conference that the submarine patrol was “normal” part of training to improve crews’ skills.
“Our navy should not be idling its time away, and it is not only about fighting piracy or other international campaigns,” said Gen. Anatoly Nagovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff.

“Two Russian Nuclear Submarines Make USA Shake With Fear,” ran the headline on, a tabloid-style news Web site run by former employees of the newspaper that was the Communist Party mouthpiece during the Soviet era.


The Akula II class submarine, called Shchuka-B (Shchuka means Pike) by the Russians, is designed to deploy both torpedoes and nuclear-capable cruise missiles. Only three or four are believed to have been built.

After a period of decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s military has become active in recent years, a development driven by former president – now prime minister – Vladimir Putin in a bid to reassert Russia’s global influence amid tensions with the West over NATO expansion and missile defense.

In 2007, Putin announced the resumption of Cold War-style long-range flights of strategic bombers that had been halted in the early 1990s.

Last year, two Tupolev Tu-95 bombers buzzed the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean on two occasions, and in September, two Tu-160s landed in Venezuela for military drills.

The Russian Navy has also begun extending its reach and late last year deployed warships to the Western Hemisphere for the first time since the Cold War ended. A taskforce led by a nuclear-powered missile cruiser visited Venezuela for joint exercises and one of the vessels traversed the Panama Canal.

Morrell acknowledged that the past year or two had seen “a greater projection of not just Russian naval power but air power …  clearly there is an effort on their part to project force around the world, or at least to take excursions around the world.”

Tug visit link?

The New York Times report cited a U.S. official saying that one of the submarines was believed to have sailed south towards Cuba.

A little-noticed RIA Novosti report said a salvage tug from Russia’s Northern Fleet, the Altay, would visit Havana this week, in only the second visit by a Russian Navy ship since the end of the Cold War. (Last December’s mission to Venezuela included a Havana port call.)

The visit by the Altay, described by Russian weapons researchers as 4,000-ton, 300 foot long vessel with more than 70 crew, may be linked to the submarine journey –a precautionary measure in case problems arise.

Since the Russian Navy began extending its international presence further from home ports, salvage tugs have routinely accompanied its ships.

A task force sent to the coast of Somalia in late June for an anti-piracy mission included a tug, as did a destroyer-led Northern Fleet group which visited Syria last January.

The flotilla that sailed to Venezuela and Cuba late last year was also accompanied by a tug – and the State Department suggested derisively that its presence suggested there were concerns about ships breaking down: “It was very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela,” remarked spokesman Sean McCormack at the time.

The Russian Navy has struggled to jettison a reputation for badly-maintained, poorly-equipped ships.

Last November, a deadly accident occurred onboard an Akula II submarine undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan ahead of commissioning. Twenty people, sailors and civilian technicians, died after inhaling poisonous gas when the on-board fire suppression system of the Nerpa was activated. The vessel, which was built to be leased to the Indian Navy, sustained no structural damage, and began new trials late last month.

The Nerpa accident was the latest in a series that have dogged the Russian Navy over the past decade.

Nine crewmen perished when a decommissioned nuclear submarine sank in 2003 in the Barents Sea, and in 2006 two crew members aboard an attack submarine anchored in the same area died in a fire.

In the worst accident, an explosion sank the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000, with all 118 sailors lost. The Altay, the tug reportedly visiting Cuba this week, was involved in the operation to salvage the Kursk.

Here we have an undated version of the same story, planted at "Alternet". Alternet positions itself as a alternative news site, where you get the *real* news.
Russian subs near US coast pose no threat: Pentagon
(no date, no author)
Russian submarines patrolling off the US east coast are not cause for concern and pose no threat to the United States, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
 "A Russian Akula class nuclear submarine. Russian submarines patrolling off the US east coast are not cause for concern and pose no threat to the United States, the Pentagon said on Wednesday."
"So long as they are operating in international waters -- as, frankly, we do around the world -- and are behaving in a responsible way, they are certainly free to do so and it doesn't cause any alarm within this building," press secretary Geoff Morrell said at a Pentagon news conference.
US Northern Command issued a brief statement earlier that it was monitoring the submarines, which Morrell said were several hundred miles (kilometers) off the eastern coastline.
Morrell said he was unsure if Moscow gave Washington advance notice but the US military "had the means to derive where they were going."
Morrell played down the episode, saying: "While it is interesting and noteworthy that they are in this part of the world, it doesn't pose any threat and it doesn't cause any concern."
He acknowledged that US submarines have operated off the Russian coast "from time to time" as well, in international waters.
The New York Times first reported the presence of two Russian nuclear-powered, Akula class submarines off the American coast, the first such move in years that carried echoes of Cold War tensions.
The speedy Akula vessels, which can carry cruise missiles, are attack submarines used for spying, guarding warships and tracking nuclear bombers.
Russia neither confirmed or denied that its submarines were patrolling near US territory, but suggested there was undue "hysteria" in this case.
"Activities of Russian submarines in the world's oceans outside their own waters do not violate international maritime law and are within normal practice," a military-diplomatic source told ITAR-TASS news agency.
Russia regularly makes its position on international issues known through unnamed sources quoted by state media, and the country's three main news agencies ran nearly identical reactions to the report, quoting a military-diplomatic source.
"The Russian navy systematically pinpoints the location of NATO submarines, including US Navy submarines, in direct proximity to the territorial waters of the Russian Federation," Interfax news agency quoted the source as saying.
"This however has never been a reason to make a lot of noise in the press," the source said, adding: "Consequently, any hysteria in such a case is inappropriate."
During the Cold war, Moscow and Washington routinely sent submarines near each country's coastline to gather intelligence and track fleet movements.
The patrols near the US Atlantic coastline follow Moscow's symbolic shows of force in the past year, with Russian warships carrying out exercises with Venezuela and Russian bombers buzzing a US aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
President Barack Obama has sought to defuse tensions with Moscow over US plans for a missile defense system in Central Europe.
I ran into the above article being quoted by anonymous unidentified individuals on Twitter who were using it as "PROOF" that there were Russian submarines spotted very recently in American waters; recent, as in yesterday, last week, or last month - it was always in the immanent past, and the article, being undated, allowed that misinformation to trundle on.  Were these people misinformed and continuing to pass on their misinformation? Were these malicious state sponsored actors trying to push disinformation? I have no idea, but it did come up several times, and nobody ever referenced the original 2009 articles - it was always a sketchy source, portrayed as recent.

Let me introduce you to disinformation-central; a web site named "Ask Deb", which portrays itself as a helpful how-to site, where you can get a recipe for a bundt cake, or commentary on claims of Russian submarines off the East Coast - you know, the usual.

Why Are Russian Submarines Patrolling the United States Coast?
Posted on March 16, 2018 by Deb in Bizarre, News 
If reading that headline gave you an 80s flashback, you’re not alone. People are surprised to find out that two Russian attack submarines have been spotted this week within a stone’s throw, submarine-wise, of the United States. (FALSE) The sighting of the two nuclear subs represents the first major sighting of Russian submarines since the days of the Cold War (FALSE)
The Pentagon has confirmed — two Russian attack submarines have been “patrolling the waters” off the East Coast of the United States in the past week (FALSE), including one submarine that came as close as 200 miles offshore. Although Pentagon officials (who have been monitoring the sub’s movements) didn’t consider the sub’s presence as a threat, one senior military official said the patrols were “unusual”. We have to remember that Russia today is not the same as it was twenty or thirty years ago. Their navy is weak, and there haven’t been submarine missions like this in decades.
The Pentagon has determined that the sub’s presence is not “provocative”, and officials were quick to point out that both nuclear subs stayed in “international waters” during the entirety of their partrol.
This story “broke” early this week when the sightings were reported via an online edition of the New York Times. (FALSE)
For those with a short memory, or who were born after the Cold War, these patrols were once quite normal. In fact, during the course of the Cold War, submarines from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union made regular patrols in the North Atlantic. It was a kind of game — an elaborate burlesque show of naval capability in which both sides showed off their skills at tracking and targeting rival positions. The patrols in the North Atlantic were also meant to indicate to the other side that both sides would be ready in case of war.
The same senior military official quoted saying that the patrols are not an act of aggression released the following info on the Russian boats — both vessels are nuclear powered “Akula class” submarines. These are the same subs that were used during the hottest part of the Cold War to track NATO ships. “Akula class” subs would likely have been the first line of a Russian offensive had that war gone fully hot. “Akula class” boats have the ability to attack with both torpedoes and missiles. While we refer to them as “nuclear subs”, don’t be alarmed — this class of sub only relies of nuclear energy for its power. It takes much larger ballistic missile firing submarines to launch nuclear weapons.
There are a few unconfirmed aspects of the New York Times story — for instance, the Times reported that one of the pair of submarines most recent move was to put in port in Cuba. The Pentagon specifically mentioned that there is no confirmation of that fact, and that the US military instead believes that submarine hung back near the coast of Greenland.
So why are the Russians sending out nuclear submarines now? (FALSE) The fact that we’re even asking that question may give us the answer. The Russian navy is the laughingstock of powerful navies — after the Cold War, Russia couldn’t support the kind of military force they’d built up, and many programs were scrapped. The recent showy submarine patrols are just the latest in a series of military operations by the Russians designed to show that they’re not dead in the water. (JFC)
Last year, for instance, a Russian long range strategic bomber came out of nowhere and “buzzed” the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz and its escorts while that particular strike group was making a regular patrol of the Pacific Ocean. (FALSE) Two years ago, the British Royal Air Force went so far as to scramble fighters in order to intercept Russian strategic bombers that were flying patrols a bit too close to UK territorial air space.
(TRUE, by accident - it happens yearly) An American naval expert quoted in the New York TImes article said it was “probably 15 years since Russia had put two nuclear subs in such proximity to their former Cold War rivals.” (FALSE)This morning, the Russian military establishment finally responded to the news. (FALSE) An unnamed Russian official says patrols in international waters are “routine”, and that there was no need for “hysteria”. Another senior Russian general has shrugged off Washington’s concerns, according to the New York Times, saying it was “business as usual” for Moscow to keep its navy in shape. The specific quote — “I don’t know if it’s news to anyone,” Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia’s deputy chief of general staff, said. “The navy should not stay idle at its moorings.”
In 2007, Russia (which is ready to play a more serious role on the world stage) resumed Cold War era flights of nuclear ready bombers across the Atlantic Ocean. Consider this movement into the ocean part of the plan.(FALSE) Russia relies heavily on its so called “nuclear triad” — land based missiles, nuclear submarines and strategic bombers.
Before anyone panics, remember — the submarines have not taken any “provocative action” besides their mere presence, and that presence is in international waters.

The Tu-95 "buzzing" the Nimitz incident happened n 2007 (here) and frankly I don't think I need to review each point and debunk it; it's clearly ripped off the events of 2009, and frames the events as happening in 2018, claiming it's news, which it isn't. I could not find any valid contact information to get AskDeb to remove this twaddle, but their Twitter account has been permanently suspended, I suspect for pushing disinformation and propaganda.

By stealing whole sections of prior articles, and using a healthy dose of truisms and history to lend them credibility, is a good way to make a plausible article. I believe these are traits of an information operation to gain the reader's trust, and have them blend memories in their head. People may remember something about bombers, Alaska, submarines... this fills in those banks, originally sewn by reputable sources, and now filled with completely made up details that support a false narrative of things that didn't happen at all, or didn't happen as they have been portrayed in the correct time frame.

What can we do to stop this?

We have to all be critical thinkers, and use reputable sources. Despite the occasional hard time I give journalists working for the mainstream media, they are far more accurate at reporting the news than a random site such as "AskDeb". Listen to the mainstream media, even if they have their issues, they are more reputable and more accurate than most of the alternative sources. Really.

September 14, 2018

Georgia is blocking all Open Skies Treaty flights, unilaterally, and nobody will report on it.

Georgian Coat of Arms
I alluded to this in one of yesterday's blog posts, but there was little uptake, and it was buried in a Voice of America rant, so I'll spell it out again.

In 2012 the Georgian government published their intent to violate the Open Skies Treaty if they were ever given the chance. Due to their lengthy disputes with Russia over he regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia unilaterally decided to prohibit any overflights by Russian Open Skies Treaty flights over their territory. There is no provision in the Open Skies Treaty that would allow that, for any reason. Russia requested, through the yearly routine quota allocation process, to overfly Georgia in 2018, because a spot was made available to them by another signatory who did not renew their overflights of Georgia setting up the Russian Federation for the request, Georgia refused to sign the entire 2018 flight quota; they did exactly what they said they'd do. All states have yearly quotas under the Open Skies Treaty; generally, the more you overfly, the more you're overflown. Below is a copy of the memo from the Georgian government and link to their web site. Regardless of what Russia has done, refusing all overflights of another country remains completely in contravention of the treaty, and is a massive escalation over denying flights along a 10 km x 250 km strip of land between Georgia and Russia. Russia justifies their 10 km x 250 km exclusion zone by their interpretation of the treaty, which does clearly state that a 10 km buffer between signatory and non-signatory countries should be maintained for Open Skies Treaty flight plans (which I explained previously). While the borders that Russia recognizes are different than the borders the United States, Georgia, and many other countries recognize, these are diplomatic issues that can be solved through diplomacy, and do not require halting an entire treaty unilaterally at the whim of one signatory.
Georgia Ceases Open Skies Treaty Vis-a-Vis Russia
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 2012-04-06 03:32

Georgia said it had ceased its obligations vis-à-vis Russia under the Open Skies Treaty, which allows its 34 participating states to gather information about each other's military forces through unarmed observation flights.
The move was in a response to Russia's decision two years ago to impose restrictions on flight path for aerial observation over its territory, in particular over the areas adjacent to Georgia's occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 5.
The treaty, which went into force in 2002, contains a clause according to which "the flight path of an observation aircraft shall not be closer than... ten kilometres from the border with an adjacent State that is not a State Party."
"Russia refused to allow the observation flights over its territory to fly within 10 kilometers of the occupied regions of Georgia, asserting that those regions constituted states, which were non-parties to the Treaty," the Georgian Foreign Ministry said. "The Russian Federation has deliberately and improperly restricted the right of all other States Parties under the Open Skies Treaty, denying them full territorial access to the Russian territory as required by the Treaty."
"It is obvious that the Russian Federation cannot unilaterally alter the geographical coverage of the multilateral Treaty by purporting to recognize a new entity on the territory of a State Party. Nor can Russia compel other States Parties to accept this illegal recognition [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia]," the Georgian Foreign Ministry said.
For two years, the Georgian Foreign Ministry said, Tbilisi had been trying in vain together with its partner states to make Russia "return to full compliance with the treaty obligations".
It also said that Georgia's decision to cease its obligations under the treaty in respect of Russia "means that Georgia will not allow any observation flights with the participation of the Russian Federation over the territory of Georgia and Georgia will not conduct observation flights over the territory of the Russian Federation."
The Foreign Ministry stressed that Tbilisi would continue fulfilling its obligations under the Open Skies Treaty with respect of all other participating states.
In November, 2011 following some NATO-member states Georgia too announced about stopping sharing military information under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) with Russia; Moscow suspended its participation in CFE in 2007.
There is no reason for 32 signatory Open Skies Treaty countries to request flights that are within the 10km x 250km area that is contentious, and that is the most obvious way to avoid "illegal recognition" of the international boundaries of Georgia. That is the status quo, and what has been done with Crimea already, which completely lets the air out of Georgia's argument. You will notice that since Russia annexed Crimea, 33 signatory states have not asked Ukraine (or Russia) for permission to overfly Crimea. This is because the conflicts in Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, have absolutely nothing to do with the Open Skies Treaty - and all the signatories understand that.

Let me venture you out on the limb where I'm sitting.

It was the United States made their quota available to the Russian Federation, the same quota that the Russian Federation is now using to request an overflight over Georgia. Georgia is blocking all Open Skies Treaty flights by all countries, including Russia over the United States, and all signatory nations, as they said they would do in 2012, if they ever got the chance, which the United States provided them.

In my view, the United States figured out how to kill the Open Skies Treaty and did so at the end of 2017, by proxy, through Georgia. Did they tell Georgia to do it, like a US-run puppet government? They didn't have to. Georgia said they would do exactly this in 2012.

The best part is, they got away with it. It's September and the 1st Western article to mention an "impasse" was published today by, owned by Sightline Media Group, and they still won't publish why or what this "impasse" is.


2018-09-15 Footnote:Thomas Moore suggested my understanding of what has prevented all Open Skies Treaty flights by all countries may not be accurate. I'm open to being proven wrong, but I'm still trying to figure out and reconcile what Mr Moore's interpretation is, what mine is, and how they intersect. With some luck, maybe the State Department will come clean and explain how for nine months they haven't mentioned the lack of Open Skies Treaty flights anywhere.

September 13, 2018

Debunking Anti-Open Skies Treaty Propaganda, Digital Electro-Optical Sensor Edition

The Open Skies Treaty allows signatories to the treaty to overfly, with short notice, using agreed upon planes, pre-approved crews, joint flight crews, and take pictures with treaty-limited sensors. I use the term sensor rather than camera, because the treaty allows for pre-approved synthetic aperture radar, infra-red, and the visual spectrum to be observed and captured for posterity. Currenly there is no plane equipped with synthetic aperture radar, no synthetic aperture radar is certified for use under the treaty, and none are in the queue to be certified either.

It should also go without saying that there is a faction of the American government who wants to kill the Open Skies Treaty; a treaty proposed during the Cold War, and rebooted by then President of the United States George HW Bush in 1992. The treaty came into force in 2002, and there have been hundreds of flights conducted by representatives of 34 different nations..

In 2016 VAdm Haney (then Commander of the United States Strategic Command) and LtGen Stewart (Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Commander for the Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) went before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and repeated misinformation they'd been provided, to the people of the committee, and by extension misled the people of the United States.

LtGen Stewart said on March 2nd 2016 :
"I've got to keep this really simple for me. This Open Skies discussion is think Polaroids in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s versus 1080 high definition capability as we go to a digital environment. The things you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things that you can do with post-processing using digital techniques, allows Russia in my opinion to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities. So my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage. And yes, we both can use the same techniques but I have a great concern about the quality of the imagery, the quantity of the imagery, the ability to do post-processing of digital imagery, and what that allows them to see as foundational intelligence that I would love to have personally and I would love to deny the Russians having that capability." (YouTube video)
No Sir, let's not slander the Open Skies Treaty approved wet-film cameras by suggesting their resolution is in any way similar to imagery captured by hanging an old Polaroid camera out the window of a plane and snapping a picture. The United States and other countries use some of the highest-end wet-film framing cameras on the market, specifically made for surveying and aerial observation, which capture the treaty-imposed maximum resolution of 30cm, in the visual spectrum. "Post-processing" could mean anything, but it's possibly referring to the inclusion of location metadata and the ability for the Russians to use digital images like anyone would with the inherent advantages of a digital medium. You can tile them easier than you could with wet-film, overlay other map data, and you can share them across departments much easier than with wet-film, which requires physical access to the prints, among other practical hurdles that can be solved by any digital product. None of that constitutes a violation of the treaty, or even the spirit of the treaty; Russia implemented their digital-electro optical sensor faster.

In 2016, specifically because of the misleading statements being made by American officials, I interviewed the Canadian Lieutenant colonel who is responsible for the Arms Control and Verification team that conducts Canadian Open Skies Treaty flights over Russia, facilitates Russian flights over Canada, and arranges logistical support for Russian transit flights to the United States. It was abundantly clear from our discussion that there was no problem with the Russian digital electro-optical sensor;
"30cm resolution for digital, 30cm for wet film ... 30cm is 30cm." -LCol Steeve Veillette, RCAF SJS ACV
While the Open Skies Treaty was thought of in the 1950s, signed in the 1990s, and in place since 2002, technology has come a long way. Thankfully the authors of the treaty future-proofed it somewhat, having the forsight to include provisions for visual spectrum cameras, Infra-Red, and Synthetic Aperture Radar, and still leave the list open ended, allowing for future sensors to be proposed and wrapped in. Over ten years ago the United States was leading the charge to digitize the Open Skies process, but Russia completed engineering, testing, and certification of their digital electro-optical sensor first. In order to certify the camera, 22 nations needed to approve the design was to the specifications laid out in the treaty, such as the camera was tamper proof, as well as meeting treaty-mandated maximum resolution provisions in the treaty. This means that the Russian camera, on the Russian Open Skies Treaty designated plane, conforms to all resolution limits and restrictions in the treaty. It provides advantages that are inherent in digital (no processing chemicals, can make duplicates of the images with two clicks of a mouse, etc..) but no quality difference in the imagery. That is the ruling of the governing body of the treaty, the OSCC, of which the United States has a seat.

American political opponents to the Open Skies Treaty call the Russian switch from wet-film to digital an upgrade, and claim it gives the Russians an unacceptable advantage over the United States of America, suggesting the quality of the images, and resulting intelligence gained from them, is superior to the status quo. This complaint is spurious at best, since the United States is actively developing their own digital electro-optical sensor that will be extremely similar in capabilities, identical in fact, to the Russian sensor they're crying foul about now. Further, the digital electro-optical sensor (ahem, camera) has been certified by the OSCC to be compliant to all the same restrictions as the wet-film camera.

As for the accusations that Russia would gain "foundational intelligence" with the digital electro-optical sensor; all of the countries who are signatory to the Open Skies Treaty gain intelligence from observation flights. Suggesting anything else is rather dishonest.

The OC-135 planes that are used by the USAF to conduct observation flights are falling appart, and I'm not sure how they haven't been grounded for flight safety issues yet. Reports of the OC-135 being incapable of landing at all Russian airstrips that are allowed in the Open Skies Treaty for refuelling are true, therefore their range is limited to where they can fly to from designated airports. A different plane capable of landing on less well maintained airstrips would benefit the United States. For example, in order to fly observation missions in one area of Russia's North, refuelling in Tiksi Airfield is required. Unfortunately, due to frost heaves and other maintenance issues, the OC-135 is unable to land on the paved, but rough, runway. This is where partners are useful to the United States; USAF members tagged along on a Canadian Open Skies Treaty flight to Tiksi July 4th to 9th 2016. The adept RCAF crew and rough and tumble CC-130J Hercules can land on gravel, and had no issue with the rough runway. What I believe should be publicized to a much greater degree is the US isn't in this treaty alone, it has 32 allies that fly missions over Russia who are required to share their imagery with anyone who asks. It's extremely infrequent that I see any mention in the American press that the treaty is multilateral, and not like the START or other treaties that only have Russian and the United States at the table. Maybe it's unfamiliar territory, to discuss a 34-way treaty where everyone has an equal say, but I do think the American news media is glossing over the multinational aspect of the Open Skies Treaty.

Of the two outstanding items characterized as violations by the Russian Federation by the United States State Department Arms Control and Verification department, which are documented in their yearly report (which is not part of their Open Skies Treaty responsibilities, but they publish one yearly all the same) one has to to with the border region near Georgia, and the other to do with Kaliningrad.

In April of 2012 Georgia announced to the OSCC that it would no longer cooperate with Russia in the Open Skies Treaty due to their involvement in the Georgian "breakaway" republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are not recognized as separate countries by Georgia or the United States, but at the time the OSCC didn't really address the issue, and the State Department didn't mention in their yearly compliance report that Georgia was in violation of the treaty, because nothing of any importance had been blocked or violated yet.  Fast forward to 2017; Russia requested, in the appropriate OSCC meeting at the end of the year when they define the next years quotas regarding who will fly over who under the treaty, that they fly over Georgia. Georgia refused, as they said they would in 2012, which is a violation of the Open Skies Treaty. Since the OSCC requires unanimous consent regarding the quotas of flights to be flown for 2018, and Georgia refuses to do so, the entire treaty is currently on hold, and no countries are able to overfly anyone.
(Georgia background:

Because Russia considers South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent countries, confirming to the Open Skies Treaty, are prohibiting flight plans within 10km of the border with either, since they are not signatories to the Open Skies Treaty. Georgia and the United States consider them to still be part of Georgia, therefore no limit is required in their eyes. This border dispute is far outside the scope of the Open Skies Treaty, and the slice of land that cannot be overflown is so small, while very significant to Georgia, I cannot see any reason for this to impact the overall treaty. If the US really wants to see something in that strip, they can with their national technical means already; claiming there is something of interest in that 10km slice is disingenuous. Opponents flaunt this a slippery slope, and that Russia must return to *full* compliance of the treaty in the eyes of the US, but I don't see how that's possible with the complicated South Ossetia and Abkhazia issue. It would make sense to me that American opponents of the treaty know it's impossible for Russia to return to compliance with this outstanding unrelated issue, and are using it as proof that Russia is unwilling to cooperate, and a reason for the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

The second outstanding violation the United States accuses Russia of is limiting the flight distance over Kaliningrad to 500km, which the US says is a violation of the agreement, and Russia says they are doing within the agreement for flight safety.
"Some of our partners, who have the right to make observation flights at a maximum distance of 5,500 kilometres, used this right over the Kaliningrad Region, flying over it far and wide, which created problems in the limited airspace of the region and hindered the operation of Khrabrovo International Airport. We did not manage to convince our partners to show a reasonable degree of restraint. This is why we had to minimise spending by restricting the maximum flight distance over the Kaliningrad Region to 500 kilometres. This is not contrary to the OST or the signatories’ subsequent decisions. I would like to point out that this has not changed the total flight distance of 5,500 km and hence coverage of Russia’s territory. The flight range of 500 km over the Kaliningrad Region is sufficient for observing any part of the region, even the most distant areas, during observation flights. In other words, this restriction has not affected observation effectiveness."
Significantly, I had been told this same story, off the record, by American officials, so I can confirm the story from two sources, one of which is public.
Kaliningrad is roughly the same size as Connecticut. Under the treaty an observation flight can take pictures over 5,500km of Russia; but the intent is to fly across Russia, not stay within one spot and photograph every bush and every tree in a single area. Technically, there is nothing to say the 5,500km can't be spent in one area, but in practical terms this wreaks havoc on commercial airline operation, especially over Kaliningrad. Flying a flight path exclusively over Kaliningrad (think of trying to burn thousands of miles over CT zig-zagging a lawnmower pattern, all day) isn't exactly within the spirit of the agreement, but was technically legal - which is why Russia imposed a unilateral 500km limit after not receiving support at the OSCC for their objections.

Opponents of the treaty use the term "restriction" when referring to Russia's two limits imposed on flights in Russia, but the English word restriction is ambiguous enough to mean different things to different people. Restriction in this case means being allowed to overfly Kaliningrad with strings attached, not blocking all flights over the Kaliningrad enclave, as it has been portrayed in the media. Likewise, the 10km wide strip of land near Georgia that depending who you ask is, or isn't, subject to the Open Skies Treaty is being blocked, but justly in Russia's view.  These are diplomatic issues that are best handled by the State Department who have brought the number of treaty violations down to only two, whereas years ago they had at least five - all others have been solved through diplomatic means.

Please let me know if I've missed anything!

Suggested reading:

   by George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and Christopher Stubbs
   NY Times Op-Ed, 2012-03-25

"Intelligence and Security Implications of the Treaty on Open Skies, report of the Select Committee on Intelligence"
  United States Senate, 1993-04-19

US Space-Based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
  Maj Brian Crothers, USAF; Maj Jeff Lanphear, USAF; Maj Brian Garino, USAF;
  Maj Paul P. Konyha III, USAF; and Maj Edward P. Byrne, USAF

Georgia Ceases Open Skies Treaty Vis-à-Vis Russia
  Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 2012-04-06

CRS Insight: The #OpenSkiesTreaty: Issues in the Current Debate2017-08-10 #IN10502

United States Department of State Arms Control and Verification compliance report April 2018

Voice of America, PolygraphInfo, and the problem with Open Skies Treaty disinformation.

How frustrated am I?  Extremely. Why? I had a lengthy correspondence with one of the Voice of America's award winning journalists, Fatima Tlisova, and it didn't really end well. Ms Tlisova is a former Russian dissident who sought refuge in the United States in 2007, after being repeatedly attacked and poisoned by Putin's goons, and even accused by Infowars of being a CIA asset in 2013; a dubious honour indeed! Ms Tlisova wrote this piece, and despite my best efforts explaining the background of the issues, that she was being exploited as a pawn by government factions with underlying special interests, without the well being of Americans in their mind, the resulting article is only marginally better than how it began. This is not from a lack of trying; Ms Tlisova was gracious and accepting of my criticism, and seemed interested in the truth, but the final edit was made by her editor, and I'm not thrilled with the result. Let's not dwell on the past, let's take apart the current article, as it has been edited by the (nameless) Voice of America editor.

It's been many years that I've been following the Open Skies Treaty flights of the RuAF over Canada and the United States, as well as the flights Canada flies over Russia. I've also been following the problems it has had, mainly between Russia and the United States, and the tit-for-tat retaliation the latest round of threats and posturing has brought on. I was extremely surprised to see an article published by the Voice of America disparaging the treaty, out of the blue, mid-August.
Please follow this link and read it over, we're going to pull it apart. Got it? Good.

The stated purpose of Polygraphinfo, by Voice of America, is to debunk disinformation from the Russians.  That's a noble pursuit, one I unquestionably agree with, and even encourage. Well, that is until it starts spitting out disinfomation itself, from factions of the American government, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Have a boo at this 1982 paper from Duke University, and this 2017 article from a  former VOA journalist for background on The Voice of America itself.

Let me just right off the bat re-write this entire article. Yes, the whole thing; it's really really simple to make it completely and unquestionably accurate, to a level that even the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would approve. Can't believe it? Watch me!
Russia says they are in full compliance with the Treaty on Open Skies; True or Flase?
According to the United States Department of State, Russia is in violation of two provisions of the treaty; one regarding a 500km flight distance restriction over Kaliningrad, and another requiring that flight plans stay 10km inside Russian territory along its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
ref: 2018 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments; Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance; Washington, DC (April 2018)
It's really that simple. Say up front this is all based on the US State Department, and is only their view; stop speaking for the OSCC or 32 other countries, the US State Department does not speak for them.

For some unknown reason, the Voice of America wants to re-hash American propaganda that I've already debunked, in 2016, especially about a digital electo-optical sensor that she claimed was "illegal" and of too high a resolution to be allowed under the treaty. I told Ms 
Tlisova that if I didn't know better she'd been given an old slide deck from LtGen Stewart himself, or the staffer who penned it for him. Why? Because the talking points contained in the article are kissing cousins to the talking points provided to the USMC 3-Star General, so he could parrot them to Congress in the spring of 2016. That testimony, along with that of Adm. Haney (the then commander of USSTRATCOM), compelled me to request an interview with the section head of the Royal Canadian Air Force team that conducts Canadian overflights over Russia, on the record, and debunk almost everything they said, which I published via my blog in the fall of 2016

Let's do this paragraph by paragraph.

Russia is in violation of the Treaty on Open Skies, because this report said so?

"The claim is false – Russia’s violations of the Treaty are documented in the annual compliance reports that are publicly available on the U.S. State Department website." -VOA
The United States is one or 34 countries who are signatory to the Open Skies Treaty. Rather than name them all, the article glosses over how many by grouping and naming only a few "NATO allies, Eastern European members of the former Warsaw Pact, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia."

Let me spell that out a little better. Here are all the countries who are signatory, because they are all equally important to the treaty, and are above being skimmed over.

BelarusThe French RepublicKingdom of the NetherlandsTurkey
BelgiumThe Republic of GeorgiaNorwayUkraine
Bosnia and HerzegovinaGermanyPolandThe United Kingdom
BulgariaGreecePortugalThe United States
CroatiaIcelandThe Russian Federation
The Czech RepublicItalySlovakia

There is no Canadian-nice way to say this; there is no special designation in the treaty for the United States. There is no head of the table that the United States sits at in Vienna, where the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) is located. The OSCC is made of of 34 state parties that are all working together on equal footing. Each votes for provisions of the treaty. There is dissent among allies, and adversaries; it's a democracy. The United States has one vote, out of thirty four. The United States can write their "compliance report" and publish it, and I'm glad they do since I use it as a historical record of the past year of activities, but I also know it's purely an American document, an American point of view, with no ratification from any of the 33 other countries, no approvals from anyone else before it was published, and no talk of what countries were in favour, or against, the American official positions stated in it. It is not an official document from the OSCC. I don't believe everything the American government tells me, with good reason. That doesn't make me anti-American, that makes me Canadian, and highly skeptical of anything that is stated by the American government. If history is an indication, you should be too. The most patriotic thing I can do is question what I'm being told by a foreign government, demand proof, and background information. The Voice of American tells you that the "truth" is in the American report, that is unilateral, and only from one of the 34 countries who are signatory to the treaty. That is ridiculous, American-centric, self-serving, egotistical twaddle.
So no, Voice of America, the "proof" is not in the State Department document; that is the opinion of a part of the American Government that does not represent the rest of the signatory countries.
Mileage may vary. Let's move on.

Altitude restriction over Moscow? 

"The U.S. says the Russian government sets distance limits on flights over the Kaliningrad Oblast, imposes altitude restrictions for the Moscow region, denies permission for Open Skies aircraft to fly within 10 kilometers of the Russian border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia." -VOA
This is where it gets interesting. While the article links to a compliance report, it links to last year's compliance report, which has been superseded since April 2018, four months before the VOA article was published. Using the latest compliance report would have removed one of three alleged-violations by the Russians, as reported by the 2017 State Department compliance report. Was this an oversight? Was this article prepared last year, but never published? Was the VOA provided a draft of this article with leftovers from previous talking points? I don't know, but I pointed it out, and the editor who reviewed my comments at the Voice of America declined to remove it.
Was this a talking point the VOA board of directions insisted they needed to put out for an upcoming event? While it was arguably a violation, it is no longer a violation; so says this year's compliance report, published by the United States Department of State.

There's a area over Moscow called "UUP-53" that the Russians insist can't be controlled by their air traffic control (ATC), something like a blind spot on their radar, perhaps it's behind a big building or hill, I have no idea. In 2017 the Americans came to the conclusion they'd drop the issue, because they are now considering the same thing, as are their allies, for flight safety reasons.
The same thing Russia has been claiming for years. Well that's awkward.
"Russia’s imposition of a minimum altitude for all air traffic over Moscow, in the region designated as UUP-53, continued and impacted one observation flight in 2016. The United States discussed this concern with States Party in 2016, including Russia’s assertion that the altitude restriction is linked to safety of flight, and it became clear that a number of States Party impose altitude restrictions for reasons of flight safety. The United States, Russia, and other interested States Party intend to explore altitude restrictions as part of a broader discussion of air traffic control procedures and Open Skies Treaty implementation." -United States Department of State, April 2017
Not surprisingly, no mention of this issue can be found in the April 2018 compliance report, because they dropped it. Better still, at no time did Russia prohibit flights over UUP-53, they just required the flights to fly at a higher altitude. Unfortunately, wet film cameras, and their lenses, are configured to produce treaty mandated 30cm resolution at a specific height. Flying higher means a different camera needs to be used, perhaps just a different lens; either way, not all countries had the camera necessary to do the higher flight, but since all countries pool their imagery, it wouldn't matter who took the pictures, everyone would see them anyway. To reiterate, no flights over Moscow have ever been prohibited, they just need to fly higher, for safety, which doesn't affect the quality of the imagery, when you use the right camera.

What's the 500km bit about over Kaliningrad?

"The U.S. says the Russian government sets distance limits on flights over the Kaliningrad Oblastimposes altitude restrictions for the Moscow region, denies permission for Open Skies aircraft to fly within 10 kilometers of the Russian border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia." -VOA
True, Russia does impose a 500km limit for flights over Kaliningrad, which is about the size of Connecticut, and have done so since 2012, because.. hang on, I'll let the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs explain why. Importantly, this is the same reason I'd heard off the record, over a year before, so I was pretty excited to hear it directly from the Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova, corroborating what I'd heard already (not from a Russian source either).

(Here is the translation of the relevant part)

First, Russia has imposed restrictions, allegedly unlawfully, on observation flights over the Kaliningrad Region. According to the United States, this precludes effective observation of Russia’s territory during the approved number of flights. Moreover, NATO countries have accused Russia of a desire to “conceal” military facilities near Kaliningrad from Open Skies cameras.
It is much simpler than this, though. Some of our partners, who have the right to make observation flights at a maximum distance of 5,500 kilometres, used this right over the Kaliningrad Region, flying over it far and wide, which created problems in the limited airspace of the region and hindered the operation of Khrabrovo International Airport. We did not manage to convince our partners to show a reasonable degree of restraint. This is why we had to minimise spending by restricting the maximum flight distance over the Kaliningrad Region to 500 kilometres. This is not contrary to the OST or the signatories’ subsequent decisions. I would like to point out that this has not changed the total flight distance of 5,500 km and hence coverage of Russia’s territory. The flight range of 500 km over the Kaliningrad Region is sufficient for observing any part of the region, even the most distant areas, during observation flights. In other words, this restriction has not affected observation effectiveness.
-Maria Zakharova, Spokesperson, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 28, 2017 (original here)
Let me elaborate further; The US, Canada, or any country, can fly 5500 km over Russia (maximum distance per flight) and take pictures anywhere they want, with a certified camera, on a certified plane, with RuAF members aboard their plane as observers. Missile facilities, tank factories, ICBM silos, Naval bases - anywhere, as long as the max distance travelled is less than 5500 km. Russia is a really big place, and if you don't get all of what you want in 5500 km, you can come back the next week, next month, or next year, and do it again (and fill out all the paperwork to do so, of course). What Ms Zakharova is alluding to is a flight by one of the signatory parties which performed a "lawnmower" pattern over Kaliningrad, burning thousands of kilometres over one spot the size of Connecticut. Because of the "lawnmower pattern", commercial and private flight was heavily disrupted. Planes couldn't take off, or land, because the Open Skies Treaty flight kept looping back, and forth - treaty flights take precedence for ATC; everyone had to get out of their way. After this perfectly treaty-legal flight, Russia brought it up and protested at the next meeting of the OSCC. They couldn't get a satisfying resolution to their concerns; specifically that another State couldn't just do an entire aerial surveillance of the entire territory and shutdown their airspace, therefore imposed a unilateral 500 km restriction, using "flight safety" as a reason, IIRC. I can't really argue with that, since watching Russian flight patterns over Canada and the United States, and getting the post-flight reports of those flights via Access to Information requests, does confirm their flights are between military bases, naval bases, rail hubs, and that sort of thing. They don't just fly thousands of miles carpeting all of Nova Scotia in one day. They cover large distances to see multiple sites, spread all across one area or another during two or three days of flights.

So yes, Russia has imposed a limit over Kaliningrad, they feel it's justified, and they feel it's a safety issue. We can disagree, but there really needs to be an OSCC voice involved, not just an American statement that it's a violation. What do the other 32 nations, who aren't complaining about it, saying?  Well, Canada for one, from an operational point of view, isn't bothered by the sub-limit. I asked  Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Steeve Veillette, the section head of the Canadian Department of National Defence Strategic Joint Staff Arms Control and Verification (4); the team which flies Canadian Open Skies Treaty missions over other signatory states, and facilitates their flights over Canada.
When asked about Russian restrictions on the Open Skies Treaty overflights over the Russian Federation, and if they impacted the observation missions the RCAF routinely flies over the Russian Federation in those same restricted areas, Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette stated ...
". . . somewhat, but at the end I don't think the treaty is degraded by any shape or form . . . operationally it makes things a little bit more complicated, but not totally (insurmountable), there's always a way."  
Specifically on the topic of the flight distance restriction of 500km imposed over Kaliningrad:
"If I cannot see everything in 500km it doesn't mean I cannot go a 2nd time and do another 500km, if I wanted to do 1000km there; so in the end, is it degraded? Somewhat, because I would rather do it once."
...which, again, is a far cry from the Pentagon / DoD narrative which depicted the Russian-imposed restrictions as being heinous acts, stopping just short of suggesting the United States should pull out of treaty because of them.
-Interview with Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette, Steffan Watkins, Vessel of Interest (Blog) 2016-10-06
The buck stops with him, and he says it's no big deal. I'm inclined to believe him, over a USMC 3-Star General who compares digital cameras vs wet film to 1080p vs Polaroids.
Go on, watch the video, General Stewart's testimony is horrifyingly terrible and poorly informed.

What's this 10km limit with Georgia?

"The U.S. says the Russian government sets distance limits on flights over the Kaliningrad Oblast, imposes altitude restrictions for the Moscow region, denies permission for Open Skies aircraft to fly within 10 kilometers of the Russian border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia." - VOA
Yes, I'm still going over the same paragraph... I know - think of how I feel!

The Open Skies Treaty is meant to allow countries to fly over each others' territory, and make sure they're not about to invade or build a WMD, not spy on those countries' neighbours. There is a provision in the treaty that states that flights must stay inside the overflown country's border, by 10 km, when the flight path is adjacent to a country which is not part of the Open Skies Treaty.
Turkey shares a border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. I'm sure Iran doesn't want an American observation plane overflying Turkey, 1 km from their border; when you look "down" from that flight path, you'd get a lot of Iran in the picture. That is why the 10 km provision is there. Simple, right?

Now we complicate things; Russia recognizes the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, but Georgia, the United States, and pretty much everyone else, doesn't. By Russia recognizing them as countries, they require flights stay 10 km inside Russia when flight plans for Open Skies trips are near their borders. By my very rough estimates, that's ~250 km of border. Russia is requiring, according to their interpretation of the rules, that flight plans stay inside 10 km of those 250 km of border. Georgia claims that humouring Russia about this 10 km limit is recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia's independence, and greatly object to any such agreement. This argument, over time, has become baseless, specifically since 2014, as the same issue exists over Crimea, which is not recognized as being part of Russia by many, but no signatory countries ask for an Open Skies Treaty flights over Crimea, as they would have to ask Ukraine for permission, but really Russia controls that airspace. Neither Crimea, South Ossetia, or Abkhazia are Open Skies Treaty-Related issues. Countries are not overflying Crimea as part of the Open Skies Treaty, and it does not mean they approve of Russia's annexation. While the Georgia issue is quite relevant to Russia and Georgia, it should not block all flights everywhere - oh yeah, which is exactly what has happened.

All Open Skies Treaty flights were stopped by Georgia starting January 1st 2018, grossly violating everything the Open Skies Treaty stands for - WAY beyond any "restrictions" Russia has ever done.

Every year the Open Skies Treaty signatories bid for quotas to overfly each other at the end of the year. Signatories who already have a quota to overfly another country get preference to renew their quota and keep the status quo, and if they don't want to keep flying with their quota, they release it so another country can pick it up. Any other country can take their quota if they desire overflying the other country. Russia requested, as part of the quota process, to overfly Georgia, but Georgia, because of their unresolved border issues, has since 2013 refused any and all overflights of Russian Air Force Planes, including the Open Skies Treaty-approved one. That's been easy to do, since Russia didn't have a quota to overfly Georgia, until the end of 2017, when the OSCC was signing off on the 2018 quotas and there was an available opportunity for Russia, which they took, completely legitimately and within the procedures of the Open Skies Treaty, but, Georgia won't sign off. Despite the Voice of America bleating like a wounded goat about Russian alleged violations of the Open Skies Treaty which 1) required flights to be done at a higher altitude or 2) required a distance sub-limit, Georgia has blocked the entire treaty, preventing all flights, everywhere, while the United States has turned a blind eye, because there's nothing the United States would like more than prevent Russia from overflying the United States. ..and you know what? They've got away with it.

Let me repeat that:

There has not been a single Open Skies Treaty overflight of any country in 2018, not one. Georgia has stopped all flights due to their own political reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the Open Skies Treaty, or 32 signatory nations.  Georgia will not sign-off on the 2018 flight quotas, therefore no flights can take place. This has been reported sparingly in the Russian media, and absolutely not at all in the American media, yet.

What about the Voice of America article?

Oh yeah; this blog post started with me, reading over the article that was published by the Voice of America, seeing red because the Voice of America was parroting talking points from years ago, with outdated information that I'd already debunked. Where out of left field did this come from? The claim made by the original edit of the article was that the digital electro optical sensor used by the RuAF was beyond the resolution allowed by the treaty, and that the camera was somehow illegal. These claims are factually completely false. The digital electro-optical sensor was approved aboard the Tu-154 the Russians use for their Open Skies Treaty flights over the United States and Canada by the OSCC.  The camera is a OSDCAM 4060, in case you want the specifications to compare for yourself. It should be quite self-evident that the camera used over the United States and Canada, last year, would have to be certified and approved, or it wouldn't have been flying over the country. I stopped writing about the digital electro-optical sensor years ago, because the whole argument was over - moot - the Tu-154 was flying overhead with the digital camera in use. It's quite incredible that the VOA would out of the blue bring this up again, and write an article full of factual inaccuracies, and bias - or maybe I shouldn't have expected anything more from the State Department's propaganda wing. I do give them credit, they did change the article after I resoundingly proved that they were completely wrong to call the digital electro-optical sensor illegal under the Open Skies Treaty. However, it was the least they could do, short of nothing at all.


Here is your fill of Open Skies Treaty blog posts, which seem to still be relevant today:

A Journalist's Primer on the Open Skies Treaty
Cutting through misinformation about the Open Skies Treaty
Open Skies Treaty overflight; Russia over Canada 2016
Two Russian Open Skies Treaty aerial observation missions over the USA in June 2017
Russian Open Skies observation flights are doing nothing unexpected over Canada
Open Skies Treaty overflight of the United States by the RuAF Sept 25-29 2017
Russian Open Skies Treaty overflight of the USA, August 2017 edition
Russian Observation flights over the United States, again. (May 18-19 2017)

I'll remind you that the US Government suppresses as much information as possible about the Open Skies Treaty, keeping all imagery, flight plans, mission plans, or even when past missions have been performed over the United States a secret, as a matter of policy. The Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Government do not, proving this is a partisan American issue, not a treaty-secret.  Still, everything I've found has been very difficult to source through open source methods. It's not an accident either, the American government want the American public kept in the dark about the treaty, since it had been working quite well, despite the Republican push to kill all treaties and open up the purse strings for defence spending on new missile technology.