September 13, 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.

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