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Sanctions Haven’t Stopped Russians From Having Their Fun in the Sun

The weather has been incredible in Antalya, Turkey lately—as it generally is (albeit hotter than usual; like other Mediterranean cities, it has been experiencing a heat wave).

The ancient city, which was founded in the second century B.C. and features famous sights such as Hadrian’s Gate in addition to its irresistible beaches, is a perennial favorite among tourists. But recently, there has been a veritable stampede of Russians. A remarkable number of Russian passenger jets are also traveling to other Turkish cities and even to the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Egypt, and the Maldives. What stands out is not just that lots of Russians can afford to travel on foreign holidays—but that they’re doing so on Russian-operated Boeing planes sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Despite the war in Ukraine, Russian charter airline Azur Air’s Boeing 767 with tail number RA-73078 is having a busy summer. Between July 9 and 16, for example, it made 15 trips between Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Kazan on one hand and Antalya and the Egyptian beach resort Hurghada on the other.

Aeroflot’s Boeing 777 with tail number RA-73132, for its part, has been flying between Moscow, Beijing, Istanbul, Bangkok, and the Maldives’ capital, Male. And Aeroflot’s Boeing 777 with tail number RA-73144 has been bringing passengers from Moscow and Novosibirsk to Antalya; Istanbul; Phuket, Thailand; and back again.

Russians are clearly vacationing in attractive destinations in the middle of the war, and getting there on Western-made aircraft; how can that be possible? After all, it was not supposed to be possible. Within days of the invasion, Western governments commanded Western firms leasing aircraft to Russian airlines to remove them from Russia—but before the companies got around to removing most of the planes, the Russian government quickly seized some 400 of them.

Russia subsequently registered some 180 as Russian aircraft, while others are used solely as parts for other planes. The West then tried another course of action to cripple Russia’s aviation sector. The U.S. government, for example, sanctioned dozens of Boeing aircraft belonging to Russian airlines (and a Gulfstream and a Dreamliner belonging to Roman Abramovich)—and forbade other countries from furnishing them with “refueling, maintenance, repair, or the provision of spare parts or services.” On top of that, the United States and the EU have banned Boeing and Airbus from servicing their aircraft belonging to Russian airlines.

The key to the story is what happens to these Boeing aircraft while they’re on the tarmac in Antalya, Phuket, Dubai, and the other foreign airports. It is extremely unlikely they only deliver and pick up tourists. Consider fuel: While aircraft on short-haul flights sometimes don’t refuel between flights, aircraft flying longer journeys have to. The flight time between Novosibirsk and Phuket, for example, is nearly eight hours, which means the plane has to be refueled before leaving Thailand. Between Moscow and Shanghai, it’s closer to nine hours. It would be quite logical for Russian aircraft to receive a bit of maintenance on their foreign stops, too, because other countries (including Turkey) have access to parts Russia no longer does.

Aviation Week reports that “while some Western aircraft spares are still being channeled into Russia through places such as Turkey and Southeast Asia, these inflows have gradually been shut down. Larger components, such as engines and landing gears, have been particularly difficult to get hold of.”

But the refueling on its own violates U.S. sanctions. In January, Turkey’s largest ground handlers—Havas and Turkish Ground Services (TGS)—told Russian airlines that they’d stop refueling Boeing and Airbus aircraft. But, Flightradar24 noted two months later, “Russian airlines are still refueling in Turkey, even if it is not with Havas and TGS.” Indeed, the sanctioned aircraft are still refueling in lots of places, and aviation experts suspect the aircraft receive some TLC there as well, though there’s no proof of it. Aeroflot has said it flies some of its Airbus aircraft to Iran for repairs, but it has been less forthcoming regarding the Boeing planes.

Either way, the sanctioned aircraft keep flying. Azur Air’s Boeing 767 and Aeroflot’s 777s are on the U.S. sanctions list, and so are dozens of other Russian and Belarusian aircraft in the fleets of Azur Air, Aeroflot, AirBridgeCargo, Alrosa, Aviastar-TU, I-Fly, Nordstar, NordWind, Pegas Fly, Aeroflot-owned Pobeda, Red Wings, Royal Flight, S7 Airlines, TransAviaExport, Ural Airlines, Utair, Yamal Airlines, and Belarus’s flag carrier, Belavia. S7 Airlines’ Boeing 737 with tail number RA-73670, for example, spent the week between July 9 and 16 making 22 journeys to and from Irkutsk, Bangkok, Novosibirsk, Beijing, Antalya, Sochi, and Istanbul.

Belavia’s Boeing 737 with tail number EW-456PA shuttled between Minsk and Antalya, Hurghada, and Dubai. (Special thanks to my research assistant, Katherine Camberg, and my former research assistant, Gavin D’Souza, who are doing extraordinary work investigating the flights.)

Turkey, though, is the absolute top destination. This year, some 7 million Russians are expected to visit Turkey, up from 5.5 million last year, the Turkish daily Hürriyet Daily News reported in April. Assuming they are not going on multiple trips, that’s almost 5 percent of all Russians. An estimated 1,150 to 1,200 flights will take place each week, with 750 handled by Russian airlines and the rest by Turkish ones, an official with the Russian Union of Travel Industry told Hürriyet. Camberg and D’Souza have documented more than 400 flights between Russia and Turkey in the past week. The Russian aviation industry’s slow death, which has been foretold by analysts over the past months, isn’t happening.

One might conclude that the U.S. government should just tell those other countries’ governments, including that of NATO member Turkey, to fall in line and do their part for the rules-based international order. Globalization, though, has created a world where ordinary people want to fly to sunny countries for their holidays—and a world where many non-Western nations have gained the economic heft to withstand U.S. pressure. The U.S. government can certainly keep reminding Ankara, Bangkok, Cairo, and even Male that refueling sanctioned Boeing aircraft violates U.S. rules, but these capitals can simply choose to ignore such reminders.

When I last checked on Belavia’s EW-456PA, it had just brought a load of passengers back from Hurghada. Aeroflot’s 777 with tail number RA-73132 was on its way from Moscow to Beijing. And Aeroflot’s 777 with tail number RA-73135 was completing a string of flights that had taken it from Moscow to Guangzhou to Moscow to Bangkok to Moscow to Bangkok (again) and back to Moscow.

But in a way, the sanctions are working. Because Western insurers (who insure most of the world’s reputable businesses) will no longer insure Russian airlines or Belavia, Aeroflot is now insured by two Russian companies. And cannibalization of seized aircraft notwithstanding, it will be difficult for Russia’s airlines to maintain their fleet without proper access to spare parts. That may be why Aeroflot placed a massive order of 339 new planes last September—and they will be made by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation. The first deliveries are planned for this year. Astonishingly, the order far exceeds Aeroflot’s current fleet of 183, Aviation International News reports.

Deglobalization is accelerating, even in aviation. The question is whether Aeroflot will receive its new aircraft before the current ones become too rickety for flights to Turkey—not to mention Thailand.

For decades, Aeroflot’s safety record was the subject of morbid jokes, and justifiably so. “Safety belts are installed on all planes that fly international routes, but are not on all planes used for domestic routes. Emergency exits (if they exist) on Soviet aircraft are not marked, neither are any inertia flashlights mounted in the cabins nor any exit to-ground slides for emergency egress. No life vests or belts are carried on over-water flights,” the Journal of Air Law and Commerce reported in 1964.

After the Cold War, the Russian carrier transformed its safety standards. Unless the Russian-made aircraft arrive soon, Aeroflot seems doomed to return to its Soviet past.

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