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Annexation Airlines: Despite Sanctions, Flights From Crimea to EU Continue
20 July, 2017
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Photo credit: Aeroflot

Before Russia’s occupation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, the peninsula’s Simferopol International Airport received around half a millions passengers per year. Since then, the number of passengers has started to grow. The Maidan of Foreign Affairs, a Ukrainian NGO that monitors sanctions violations and the the actions of the occupying regime, has recorded the number of illegal flights by Russian planes into Crimea.

According to their numbers, the passenger flow to the Crimean airport has now reached around five million people per year. The NGO also claims that flights operating out of Crimea have been travelling to countries in the European Union, despite sanctions against Russia and the official recognition of the peninsula as occupied territory.

Photo credit: Simferopol airport facebook page

In February 2014, after the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, clashes erupted between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters in Crimea. On February 27, Russian special forces in unmarked green uniforms began seizing control over key government buildings in the peninsula. While the Crimean parliament building was occupied the parliamentarians voted — some at gunpoint — to terminate the Crimean government and schedule a referendum on Crimean independence. The illegal referendum was held on March 16 to broad international condemnation. Around 95 percent of participating voters reportedly cast their ballots independence, according to the peninsula’s separatist officials. Three days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crimean separatist leaders signed a draft treaty admitting Crimea into the Russian Federation. The treaty was subsequently ratified by the Russian legislature.

With the loss of railway connection to the peninsula from both the Ukrainian and Russian mainlands, travelling to Crimea from Russia can only be done through a ferry line that crosses the Kerch Strait or through the Simferopol airport. But this is not the only reason for the increase in passengers to this airport.  

This leap  in passenger traffic amid a PR campaign about  “returning Crimea to it’s native harbour” is easily explained. The Russian government catalyzed the growth in traffic in the spring of 2014 when it launched a program subsidizing passengers’ air travel to the peninsula. The government allocated 680 million rubles (over 11.4 million USD) from the state budget to this program, with discounts on tickets reaching fifty percent.

“The decision is aimed at ensuring transport accessibility to Crimea’s sanatorium and resort facilities for Russian and international tourists,” said the decree of the Russian government from April 29, 2014.

However, the Russian government’s conditions mean the airlines suffer losses. Today, contrary to what one hears in the Russian media, cheap tickets and subsidies for travel to Crimea are only available to youth under twenty-three, disabled persons and pensioners. And these subsidies are only possible on large airplanes with a passenger capacity of at least 300 seats.

Despite the cut in subsidized flights, the increase in passengers has been significant. It has even led a problem: Simferopol airport couldn’t cope with the rise in passenger traffic, and it had to be expanded. In 2015, the occupying authorities opened a new terminal and reconstructed an older one. A year later, construction began on a new airport complex, scheduled for completion in 2018.

Photo credit: Official website of "Simferopol" airport

The total cost of this work is estimated at 32 billion rubles (over 537 million USD), thirty percent of which comes from investors. The other seventy percent  is from Russian credit banks working in Crimea, such as the Russian National Commerce Bank (RNKB), Genbank and Rossiya Bank. In May 2017, the Russian Border Construction Directorate announced a tender to provide and install new equipment at the airport border checkpoint. The cost of this work is 493 million rubles (approximately 8.27 million USD).

Since the annexation, more than forty Russian air companies have flown to the peninsula. But all of the occupying authorities’ attempts to establish international connections failed. Cambodian airline Cambodia Angkor Air made one flight, as did the Vietnamese airline Jetstar Pacific. And Russian airlines made several flights to Istanbul and Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.

“Chechen airline Grozny Avia made attempts to fly to the Istanbul Airport with a technical stop in Anapa [a Russian town on the northern coast of the black sea]. At Simferopol airport, this flight was listed as Simferopol-Istanbul, but, in Istanbul, it was called Anapa-Istanbul,” explains Olga Korbut, an expert from Maidan of Foreign Affairs. “In the autumn of 2014, thanks to the joint efforts of Ukrainian civil society, media, the Mejlis [representative body] of the Crimean Tatar people and diplomats, Turkey stopped these flights. There were also attempts to make similar technical stops in Yerevan, Armenia, but they were also discontinued.”

In August 2014, the European Union included Dobrolyot, a highly publicized low-cost subsidiary of Russian flagship airline Aeroflot, on its sanctions list. As a result, the company’s assets in the EU were frozen. An Irish company terminated a leasing contract that would have delivered eight new Boeings to Dobrolyot, while a German firm refused to carry out aircraft maintenance.

Photo credit:  EPA/DMITRY ASTAKHOV

That autumn, Russia established a new low-cost airline: Pobeda. But because of the Dobrolyot saga, this company does not fly to Crimea.  

The European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation also banned flights to the peninsula in March 2014. Regardless, twenty-one Russian airlines fly to Crimea today, with flights connecting to fifty-six Russian cities and twenty countries.

 “Among Russian airlines that fly to the Simferopol airport, the majority also operate regular flights to the airports to the European Union and countries in the Schengen zone, which recognize Russia’s control over Crimea as annexation and occupation. However, we have tracked the planes, and many of the same planes travel to the Simferopol airport and then continue on to European capitals, European cities,” said Olga Korbut.

In theory, these planes should not be allowed into Europe.

 “We think that this an important direction for clarifying European sanctions, for their expansion,” she added.

 Korbut believes that further expansion of sanctions in relation to airlines could see the companies cancel specific flights to EU countries that also travelled to Crimea. It could also lead Western companies to refuse them service.

/by Nataliya Kokorina

/Translated by Eilish Hart