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Sanctions: Russia's commercial airlines face a slow death

Killian Bayer Riga
November 18, 2022

Russian airlines are still flying despite massive international sanctions imposed on the aviation sector, but their collapse seems imminent. Or have they found a workaround?

An Aeroflot Boeing 777-300ER aircraft lands on a runway at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow, Russia
Russia's airlines are mostly flying Western-made planes that are threatening to run out of spare parts and software updatesImage: Reuterrs/M. Shemetov

There are not a few aviation experts who are surprised that Russia's commercial airlines are still taking to the skies despite a range of biting international sanctions targeting the country's aviation sector.

Not long after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Western countries barred their airspace to Russia's airlines; foreign airlines cut their commercial ties to them, and plane makers such as Boeing and Airbus stopped delivering crucial spare parts to Russia.

According to those experts, it wouldn't take more than two weeks before commercial aviation in Russia collapsed.

Nine months into the war, however, reports about Russian aviation's imminent death are proving to be premature. Flight services for Russian passengers operate seemingly uninterrupted, at least on domestic routes. How can that be?

"It's a combination of things," argues Richard Aboulafia, an aviation expert from US aerospace consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory. "Leaky sanctions are definitely a part of it…existing parts inventories, creative workarounds and cannibalism," he told DW.

An Airbus A380  jet engine maintained at the Hamburg-Finkenwerder factory
Modern aircraft are highly complex machines that cannot be maintained and repaired easilyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The cannibalization of Russian aviation

Bevor the Ukraine war, Russian airlines operated more than 800 aircraft, almost all of them made by Western manufacturers. The latest available data provided by the country's state-owned airline, Aeroflot, shows that more than 120 million passengers used the country's airlines in 2019. More than half of them took international flights, which have meanwhile been cancelled completely amid the sanctions regime.

Aboulafia said the thinning out of flight schedules has come to be a blessing for the airlines, allowing them to disassemble the grounded planes and maintain domestic services. "I'm sure their priority is preserving domestic air travel. When you no longer have to worry about international routes that allows you to save a lot of miles on your fleet, and put the maintenance resources and components into that domestic capacity."

Russian airline expert Anastasia Dagaeva agrees. She told DW that disassembling idled airplanes was "a possibility to secure critical components" as long as there are no other procurement options available and fewer planes needed.

Russia dependent on Western parts supply

Russian commercial airlines currently operate almost entirely modern Western aircraft made by Boeing and Airbus. Most of them are operated on leases from international companies — a business model facilitated by the so-called Cape Town Convention. The international treaty was signed in the South African city in 2001, reducing the risks for creditors, and consequently, the borrowing costs to debtors, through improved legal certainty.

"The convention allowed international financiers to assume that everybody was in a pretty good credit risk. Therefore, they were eager to finance jets in emerging markets and Russia was no exception," Aboulafia explained.

Leasing firms recall planes lent to Russia

As Russia began rejuvenating its commercial airliner fleet in the years after 2001, replacing its old Soviet-made aircraft, it also adopted Western maintenance schedules and airline safety standards.

As those binding schedules could no longer be guaranteed by the Russian airlines in the wake of the sanctions, many investors demanded their leased aircraft back — more than 500 jets worth well over $10 billion (€9.65 billion).

However in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law regulation allowing the country's airlines to register their aircraft in Russia — a move that "effectively meant we have stolen the planes," said independent Russian aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich.

"Now we are forced to steal spare parts, which has become a matter of survival for civil aviation in Russia," he told DW.

He also said that Iran used to be a big hope for Moscow as the Mullah regime was showing how to circumvent Western sanctions in the field of aviation. A hope which, however, isn't materializing for Moscow, he added.

A Sukhoi Superjet 100 aeroplane taking off from the German airport of Dresden
Russia's Sukhoi Superjet 100 features many components from European and American suppliersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Eisenhuth

Dying a slow death

Aboulafia thinks that Russia and Iran cannot be compared as Teheran is using mostly older models in its fleet that date back to the 1970s and 80s.

Russia's modern airplanes are much more dependent on regular software updates and state-of-the-art semiconductors. "You can fake it a lot more easily with older-generation jets," he said, adding that Russia has "no internal, commercial aircraft manufacturing capability of any note" that would allow it to make up for a Western boycott on parts deliveries.

Moreover, Western manufacturers are "really good at keeping track of components," meaning Russia is currently cut off from parts suppliers elsewhere in the world.

"I suspect you'll see a bit of a cliff falling off at some point. Because getting parts here and there, cannibalizing existing jets — that's a six-to-12-month story. Beyond that I just don't see how that keeps going," Aboulafia said.

Aboulafia also thinks what could become even more dangerous to Russia's commercial aviation industry is Moscow's blatant violation of the Cape Town Convention. "I don't think there's anybody who's going to ever finance capital equipment to Russia again."

This piece was originally published in German.