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12th Apr 2024

Russia flight bans add to crisis in EU skies

  • Dutch carrier KLM was allowed to fly around Belarus into Russia, but its sister airline, Air France was not (Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck)

Russia has banned some Austrian and French flights, amid disarray in European skies after the Belarus hijacking.

Austrian Airlines and Air France cancelled flights to Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday (27 May) when Russia denied them permission to divert around Belarus, in line with new EU sanctions.

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Russia did so because "politicisation" of flight routes was "unacceptable and would be dangerous in terms of aviation safety", Russia's ambassador in Vienna, Dmitry Lyubinsky, said on Facebook.

The EU was wrong to have accused Belarus of "air piracy" before any investigation had taken place, he added.

"The speedy, fully-fledged normalisation of the air traffic regime between Russia and Austria is in our common interests," he also said.

But that would be handled bilaterally and Russia would not bow to "political pressure," he added.

Lyubinsky's Facebook post was the only official Russian comment on its new air policy.

But Russia's Belarus-diversion ban was selective because British Airways and Dutch carrier KLM were allowed to do it.

"It's an attempt to split European unity by applying pressure to individual airlines," an EU diplomat said.

"Air France probably has a lot of overflights via Russia to Asia, so Moscow is counting on the French getting scared and giving into its blackmail," he added.

"[Russian president Vladimir] Putin shows full solidarity with [Belarusian president Alexander] Lukashenko. EU airlines avoiding Belarusian airspace are now banned from entering Russian airspace," Norbert Röttgen, a senior German MP, also said on Russia's decision.

"If you still had doubts whether Putin at least tolerates Lukashenko's state terror, this is your answer," Röttgen said.

EU leaders declared a Belarus air-ban on Monday after one of Lukashenko's Mig-29s forced down a Ryanair passenger plane flying from Athens to Vilnius to seize a political activist.

EU-based airlines were subsequently "recommended" to avoid Belarus airspace by the European Aviation Safety Agency, an EU regulator in Germany.

A few non-EU carriers, such as Singapore Airlines and Japan's ANA, have also followed EASA's guidance.

Meanwhile, EU officials are drawing up a legally binding ban on Belarusian planes entering EU countries' airspace.

As of Friday, 12 EU capitals had already notified Eurocontrol, an international body in Brussels which handles European air traffic, that Belarusian planes were not welcome, but 15 had not done so.

And all that added up to a crisis in European skies, where some 400 civilian planes used to fly over Belarus every day, some 100 of which were operated by EU or UK airlines, according to Eurocontrol data.

Lukashenko's hijacking also has the potential to cause long-term disruption.

The UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal, Canada, has the power to expel Belarus from the Chicago Convention, a 1944 treaty on air safety.

"These unacceptable actions were an attack on European aviation security and put in danger the lives of the passengers and crew as they traveled between two EU capitals," Irish transport minister Eamon Ryan told an emergency ICAO meeting on Thursday.

If the ICAO did expel Belarus from the Convention, its planes might not be able to fly anywhere.

But on the other hand, "if ICAO reacts in a soft way, this could encourage other autocrats in the world, and there are many of them, to ignore and disregard the international community," Elmar Giemulla, an aviation lawyer, told British newspaper The Guardian.

"If this [Belarus-type hijacking] spreads all over the place, we can forget international aviation," Giemulla, who, in the past, represented families from the MH17 flight disaster, said.

Economic sanctions

The EU is also preparing to impose its first-ever economic sanctions on Belarus, foreign ministers said at informal talks in Lisbon on Thursday.

These will target Belarusian exports of fertiliser and oil products to Europe, which are worth €2bn a year, compared to the €85m that Lukashenko gets from overflight fees.

They will also strike Belarusian banks, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said.

"We are talking about ... to what extent Belarus should be allowed in future to issue bonds, by the state or the central bank, in Europe," he said.

If Lukashenko did not release the activist, Roman Protasevich, whom he snatched off the Ryanair jet, as well as other prisoners, "this will be only the beginning of a big and long spiral of sanctions," Maas said.

Friends of Lukashenko

But for his part, Lukashenko accused Protasevich of plotting "bloody revolution" and the West of waging "hybrid war" against him in a speech in parliament.

The Belarusian leader was to meet Putin in Sochi on Russia's Black Sea coast on Friday.

And if Lukashenko looked isolated on the world stage, then he had another friend in the Black Sea region, it emerged, after Turkey's autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, watered down a Nato statement on Belarus earlier this week.

A draft Nato communiqué had called for sanctions, including Belarus' expulsion from a Nato cooperation project.

But Turkey vetoed that, according to two diplomats who spoke to the Reuters new agency on Thursday.

And the final Western allies' statement was more dovish.

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