By Vincenzo Claudio Piscopo
Ukraine: The Ongoing Conflict’s Effects on the Aviation Industry
The situation on the border between Ukraine and Russia has always been very tense. To better comprehend the reasons for this war, it is necessary to understand the events of recent years. The first problems in Ukraine began with the series of violent demonstrations called “Euromaidan” on the night of Nov. 21-22, 2013, in the main square of Kiev. These protests erupted after Ukrainian President Janukovyč postponed the signing of the Political and Economic Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union (which later came into force in 2017) under heavy economic pressure from Russia.
The Ukrainian president had reached an agreement with Putin under which Russia would buy $15 billion of Ukrainian bonds, and discount the price of gas by a third. During the protests, on November 30, 2013, following the attack of government forces against the demonstrators there was an escalation of violence, leading to the Ukrainian revolution the following year, culminating in the ouster of President Janukovyč. Following this government crisis, the situation of Crimea, a peninsula facing the Black Sea, broke out.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Crimea proclaimed self-government on May 5, 1992, but later agreed to remain within Ukraine as an independent autonomous republic. However, the region, whose majority is ethnic Russian, was militarily occupied by Russian troops in 2014 and through a referendum (defined as illegal by the UN, European Union, United States of America, and Ukraine itself) was annexed to the Russian Federation.
Then in May 2014 there was a referendum on the independence of the Donbass region, in the Donec basin, a river on the border between Ukraine and Russia. The referendum, organized by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists was strongly criticized by the central government of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union, having reported strong electoral fraud and military repression. The only state to recognize the referendum was Russia. Therefore, part of the Donbass region unilaterally declared itself independent from Ukraine in 2014.
Then in July 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (a system at that time employed by both Russian and Ukrainian armed forces) while flying over the eastern part of Ukraine, killing the 298 people on board (283 passengers and the 15 crew members). Responsibility for this downing is still not well defined, but preliminary conclusions state that flight MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile via a system (probably arrived from Russia and then sent back to hide the evidence of its presence) that originated from a farm in an area controlled at the time by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists.
Recent Developments and the Donbass War
The 2014 referendum on the independence of the Donbass region was recognized only by the Russian Federation, and on Feb. 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially recognized it as Russian territory. Therefore, on the night of Feb. 23-24, the Russian president gave the order to attack, explaining that he had authorized “a special operation” in Ukraine to “demilitarize the country” and “protect the Donbass region” effectively beginning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Less than 20 minutes after the attack began, Eurocontrol, the continent’s intergovernmental civil-military air traffic control organization, said that as a conflict zone, the airspace of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus within 100 nautical miles of the borders with Ukraine could be dangerous to fly over, avoiding the risk of civilian aircraft being misidentified and subsequently shot down again as with 2014’s Flight MH17. Shortly afterwards in addition to Ukraine, the airspace of neighboring Moldova was also closed.
The local airline, Ukraine International Airlines, has announced the suspension of all flights, while the low cost airlines Ryanair and Wizz Air have announced the suspension of flights to Ukraine for at least the next two weeks. In response to the military invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom has banned all Russian aircraft from flying in British airspace, as have the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, urged all European nations to do the same, saying that “there is no place for the aggressor state’s planes in Europe’s democratic skies.”
Russia promptly responded with bans on flights by the airlines of the United Kingdom, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Slovenia.
The closure of air traffic over Ukraine however further reduces the corridors of airlines flying between Europe and Asia. Already in the past months, airlines have tried to avoid Belarusian airspace by flying to Turkey or further north to the Baltic States and Finland. All this after the hijacking in Minsk of a Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight, actually hijacked only to arrest an activist and his girlfriend on board. In the event of a complete diplomatic breakup between the West and Russia, Putin could order no aircraft (civilian or cargo) to pass over his country. This would have serious repercussions, forcing companies to further lengthen routes with higher kerosene consumption.