Russia Tries to Recognize Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region in “Open Skies” Too

15 June, 2020

On June 8, an online edition Saqinform published an interview with Alexandr Grushko, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, given to the Russian News Agency TASS. According to Grushko, Georgia is violating the Treaty on Open Skies, while the United States behaves destructively and seeks excuses to leave the Treaty. He also added that despite the violations, nobody has attempted to leave the Treaty except the U.S., connecting this decision to military activities of NATO.

The statement by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia about Georgia allegedly violating the Treaty on Open Skies and the U.S. acting destructively, is manipulative. Since 2010, Russia has been attempting to use the principles of Open Skies as tools for politically recognizing Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, on the one hand, and avoiding full compliance with the Treaty, on the other. The flight restrictions, imposed by Georgia on Russia, represent a response to the actions of the latter.

What is the Treaty on Open Skies?

The Treaty on Open Skies allows its 34 signatories to carry out observation flights on each other’s territories, based on preliminary notification and with the aim of checking the military capabilities. The Treaty was signed in 1992 and enacted in 2002. Georgia, Canada, and Russia, together with countries of Europe, are parties of the Treaty. The United States announced in May 2020 that it would be leaving the Treaty, effective six months after the statement.

Attempt to recognize the occupied territories within the framework of the Treaty on Open Skies

The parties of the agreement are not allowed to carry out flights within 10 kilometers from the borders of non-members of the Treaty. Therefore, if a member country borders a non-member one, the flights within the 10 km from the border of the non-member country are not allowed there either.

Since 2010, Russia, with the aim of legitimizing the recognition of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia, banned observation flights on the territory of Russia within the 10 km from the borders of the occupied territories, as well as above them. The justification was that these territories are “independent“, non-member countries.

In 2012, after two years of negotiations, Georgia banned Russian observation flights above its territory in response.

A statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia from May 2020 mentioned that Russia had been politicizing the Treaty for years and violating its provisions: “Since 2010, Russia has ineffectively attempted to use this Treaty as a tool to illegally legitimize the recognition of the occupied territories of Georgia” – read the statement by MFA.

Claims that Russia has violated the Treaty, the undermined agreement, and Russia’s counter-accusations

The U.S. announced that it would be leaving the Treaty in May 2020, naming the politicization and the violation of the Treaty by Russia as the reason. According to an official statement by the U.S. Department of State, Russia uses the Treaty to illegally recognize the occupied and annexed regions – the statement reads that Russia banned flights within 10 km of the occupied territories and placed a refueling airfield in Crimea, Ukraine. Moreover, the statement mentions that Russia illegally placed a restriction on flight distance over Kaliningrad (where a nuclear weapon is stored) and denied a shared United States and Canada observation flight over a large Russian military exercise – something that, according to the U.S., undermines the very intent of the Treaty as a confidence- and trust-building measure.

In addition, Russia, while continuing to push forward the idea of the “independence” of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region and knowing Georgia’s position throughout the six years very well, requested an observational flight above Georgia in 2018. In case of a negative answer, it threatened to refuse the scheduled signing of the Treaty in 2018, which would have led to a complete failure of the Treaty.

The MFA of Georgia issued a statement on the issue in May 2020. “The Russian Foreign Ministry’s calls to other countries to comply with the provisions of the Treaty on Open Skies without politicization is nothing but a cynical comment as Russia itself uses this technical agreement for its own political aims” – read the statement of the ministry.

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By Ana Chitaladze