Russian Military Plane Flies Over U.S. For Spy Mission, Canada Is Next

Tom O’Connor

A Russian aircraft entered U.S. airspace Monday with the intent of surveilling the U.S. as part of a legal reconnaissance mission.

The Russian Tu-154M LK-1 passenger jet, which was equipped with special camera equipment, was headed to the U.S. and then to Canada for Russia's ninth and 10th such observation missions of the year. The flight, which would follow a previously agreed upon route, was covered under the Treaty on Open Skies signed in 1992 by the U.S., Russia and 32 other nations, including the majority of Europe. It was enacted in 2002. Despite heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow, the post-Cold War agreement permitted the two world powers to essentially spy on another with certain limitations.

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A file picture shows a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 airplane of Pulkovo Airlines takes off from Schoenefeld airport in Berlin May 16, 2004. A specially modified Tu-154 variant would conduct Russia's ninth and tenth observation flight of the year over the U.S. and Canada in April 2017. Thomas Noack/Reuters

"Within the framework of the Treaty on Open Skies, a group of Russian inspectors is planning to carry out an observation flight on Tu-154M LK-1 aircraft over the United States and Canada," Sergei Ryzhkov, head of the National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, told Russia's Sputnik News Monday.

Signatories to the Treaty on Open Skies were only allowed to fly aircraft that were unarmed and fitted with certain kinds of equipment. These tools were limited to "optical panoramic and framing cameras, video cameras with real-time display, infra-red line-scanning devices and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar," according to the State Department. Devices capable of intercepting communications were prohibited and U.S. and Canadian officials would be on board this week's Russian flight to assure it was up to protocol, according to Ryzhkov. 

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Russian Air Force Colonel Yuri Grigoryan shows pictures of the United States and Canada taken from Russian military plane AN-30 to journalists at a military base in Kubinka near Moscow August 12. The pioneering Russian reconnaissance flight was part of the Treaty on Open Skies that would go into action in 2002. Stringer/Reuters

The Russian airplane was also required to enter the country through Virginia's Dulles International airport, a little over 27 miles from the nation's capital in Washington, where President Donald Trump stated Wednesday that U.S.-Russian relations "may be at an all-time low" over the governments' differing views on the war in Syria.  If the plane had approached from the West coast, it would have to land at the Travis Air Force base in California. Russia's aircraft could then travel to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska and Lincoln Municipal Airport in Nebraska as well as refuel at air bases and airports in Arizona, Hawaii, Montana, Tennesee and Wisconsin, according to Popular Mechanics.

The U.S. and France, which also had to abide by careful rules on such legal reconnaissance missions, conducted their own Open Skies flight over Russia earlier this year, according to Russia's Sputnik News. Between February 27 and March 4, U.S. and French inspectors reportedly boarded a Boeing OC-135B, specially modified to snoop on Russia.

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