West Sanctions Russian Aviation, But Moscow Decides to Keep Planes Flying Despite Risks
When the U.S. and its allies slapped sanctions on Russia for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, severing aviation links was at the top of the list. Direct flights vanished and Russian airlines lost access to spare parts for their foreign airplanes. In retaliation, Vladimir Putin’s regime impounded foreign aircraft and shut off the world’s largest air space to countries imposing sanctions. Not since the early 1980s—when the U.S. suspended routes to the USSR over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, repression in Poland and downing of a Korean Air Lines plane—have aviation ties between the two countries dipped so low. Aviation sanctions today are having an impact but come with a major risk. If the fatal crash of a jetliner killing hundreds is linked to the lack of spare parts, Putin will blame sanctions and the West. The stakes are high as Russia seeks to use any issue from cluster bombs to soccer to widen cracks in Western unity over Ukraine. To get ahead of this, U.S. policymakers and their allies need to better explain the effects of sanctions, why they’re worth the risk and why the Russian state, not the West, is ultimately responsible for any fatal crash.
U.S. government assessments place Russian aviation among sectors negatively impacted by sanctions. A closer look shows widening success in degrading this increasingly weak link in Russia’s political economy. By late 2021, foreign aircraft comprised 70% of Russia’s fleet of 801 passenger airplanes, which included 298 Airbuses, 236 Boeings, and 23 other foreign aircraft such as Embraers. In addition, 95% of Russian airline flights were on foreign-made aircraft. Consequently, sanctions aimed at depriving spare parts for foreign airplanes have caused many disruptions such as fare increases to cover higher costs of repairs. Some of Russia’s 53 airlines have periodically suspended or stopped flying some of their foreign planes. Reports of Russian airlines’ cannibalization of foreign aircraft similarly underscore a dire situation.
Less well known is how sanctions hurt Russian manufacturing since Western technology is critical to aircraft such as the Sukhoi Superjet 100, which uses a French-Russian engine (though Russians are working on a substitution). Production of the Yakovlev design bureau’s MC-21 passenger airplane faces significant delays due to sanctions that force substitution of its Western-made parts. Sanctions even helped push Russia out of a joint venture with China to produce the CR929 widebody aircraft. While China is happy to help Russia thwart sanctions, this plane needs Western systems that sanctions complicate.
In response, Russia has adapted to and thwarted some aviation sanctions, which I predicted would happen because Putin’s regime is reproducing a state-centered aviation sector rooted in the Soviet past. The war has accelerated the state’s growing control over this vital economic sector, which began before Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Examples include the state’s 51% ownership of Aeroflot since 1994, the merger of two smaller, state-run airlines in 2003 and the consolidation of aircraft manufacturing in the state-owned United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), which was created in 2006. More recently, the Russian state has helped the country’s airlines weather sanctions by facilitating the illegal confiscation of foreign aircraft. Russian airlines have also proven resourceful by purchasing spare parts through brokers in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. Better known for supplying Russia with drones, Iran also agreed to provide Russian airlines with spare parts and has been fixing an Aeroflot Airbus for months. Many foreign airlines continue to fly to Russia, and Putin’s regime rewards friendly countries with overflight rights.
But the longer sanctions remain, the harder it’s getting for Russia. To regain profitable foreign routes, its airlines are receiving government assistance to legitimately purchase the Western aircraft they illegally seized, although recent holdups in allocating such funds are causing doubts. In a throwback to the Soviet era, Putin’s regime boasts that Russia doesn’t need the West’s airplanes anyway since its one manufacturer, the UAC, will pick up the slack. Such import substitution is unlikely to succeed, as multiple delays suggest. More likely, Russia’s aviation sector will grow more reliant on the state, if not actually part of it like the UAC. This will make Russian aviation less efficient, less innovative and more expensive. Iranian airlines, which have long suffered under foreign sanctions despite some success circumventing them, present their Russian counterparts with a grim vision of the future such as being shut out of lucrative air travel markets and falling behind in emerging aviation technology.
How does this shape safety in Russia’s skies? The short answer is that it’s not as bad as headlines suggest and the impact of sanctions is ambiguous at best. Click bait stories paint a dire picture but often conflate commercial, military and general aviation into alarming numbers that do not accurately capture what ordinary passengers face. Some accounts, such as one claiming 120 accidents occurred in 2023, provide few details or sources. Annual safety reports from Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) allow for comparison over time but often obscure Russia’s situation by combining data from each post-Soviet state it monitors. Its 2019 report is mysteriously missing and its decision not to investigate the fatal crash of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Embraer Legacy 600 plane suggests meddling from above.
That said, the IAC source base is the most systematic we have. Keeping in mind the potential for the politicization of its conclusions, what does a critical reading of its data alongside other sources suggest? First, fatal crashes in commercial and general aviation actually decreased in Russia from 18 in 2021 to 13 in 2022, and related deaths decreased from 70 to 24. Data for the first half of 2023 points in the same direction, with six fatal crashes and nine deaths. This trend was likely helped by the 14% decline in traffic after February 2022. While so many fatal crashes sound substantial, all but three in 2021 and all but one in 2022 involved small aircraft under 5,700 kilograms, not the jetliners we associate with most commercial flying.
Absolute figures on crashes and deaths capture headlines but they don’t say much about safety without considering their relation to passengers flown or departures. According to the IAC, the rate of aviation accidents and the rate of fatal crashes per one million departures both increased from 2020 to 2021 but then decreased in 2022. The IAC does not single out Russia from other post-Soviet states for this metric. But since Russia has the largest aviation sector among those countries, these data suggest that its aviation safety has not dramatically worsened since early 2022. Indeed, even critics who argue that Russian airlines are less safe partly because of sanctions conclude that “2022 and 2023 were also good years for airline safety [in Russia] compared to 2021.”
Comparisons with the U.S. similarly suggest that passenger aviation is not as disastrous as some headlines suggest. The IAC data indicates that Russia and other post-Soviet states are usually but not always behind the U.S. in passenger aviation safety. In 2018, for example, IAC countries reported a 0.8 rate of fatal crashes per 1 million departures of passenger aircraft above 5,700 kilograms. Comparable statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board showed a 0.11 rate for that year for scheduled U.S. carrier flights. In 2019, the rates were 2.3 (IAC) and 0.10 (U.S.), but in 2020, both IAC countries and the U.S. enjoyed a 0.0 rate of fatal crashes. The following year, however, IAC countries reported a 1.9 rate of fatal crashes, whereas the NTSB reported a 0.0 rate.1
Against this background of Russian airline safety, let’s now turn to the impact of sanctions. While some commentators emphasize that no fatal crashes have been tied to sanctions, others claim they make Russian airlines unsafe and that it’s only a matter of time before such a fatal crash happens. Some even argue that life-threatening dangers prove aviation sanctions are effective and could help turn Russians against Putin.
To reassure the public, Russian aviation officials insist the country’s airlines are safe despite sanctions, as do Russian business media and aviation journalists. This plays to Putin’s claims to legitimacy based in part on withstanding anything the West throws at him. In sharp contrast, Ukrainian media tells Russians their airlines are a disaster waiting to happen precisely because of sanctions. Independent Russian journalists banished by Putin concur, raising alarms about efforts to cover up the impact of sanctions and about the many ways Russian airlines cut corners on safety. In short, an information war exists around the morbid question of whether a Russian jetliner will crash and the role sanctions could play.
Fears of a fatal crash were validated by the emergency landing of a Ural Airlines A320 in September, apparently caused by malfunctioning hydraulics tied to sanctions. But a closer examination by a Russian aviation journalist suggests the pilots played a more important role by pressing on to an airport for which there wasn’t enough fuel. Recent Russian state assessments of aviation safety similarly point to pilot error and poor training as the chief causes of aviation incidents. More generally, airplane disasters are usually caused by a convergence of factors—bad weather, a manageable mechanical failure and pilot error—not just one problem. In public discussions, however, pinpointing sanctions’ role tracks more with the politics of the war than technical expertise.
At the end of the day, Russian airlines and aviation authorities are solely responsible for putting planes in the sky and Russians’ lives at risk. They continue to claim that everything is fine. But if a fatal crash of a Boeing or Airbus flown by a Russian airline kills hundreds, I predict this narrative will quickly change. Putin will blame the West as he does for everything else affecting his legitimacy, from Russia’s economic problems and his diplomatic failures to protests against his regime and even the war he started in Ukraine.
Such a scenario will be a serious test for policymakers who argue that punishing Russia with sanctions is still worth it. To prepare for this, they need to take a page from the Biden administration’s release of intelligence on Russia’s military buildup before the full-scale invasion: publicize as much intelligence as possible on sanctions and their impact, as well as Russia’s aviation sector and what it does or doesn’t do to ensure safety. As Putin’s regime falls back on Soviet-era secrecy about airline safety, sharing such intelligence will be a powerful tool. This will also contribute to broader Western efforts at combatting Russia’s better known disinformation campaigns such as those denying its human rights abuses in Ukraine.
- The NTSB measures fatal crash rates per 100,000 departures, whereas the IAC measures this rate per 1 million departures. The results of the NTSB data (e.g., 0.011 in 2018) can be compared to the IAC results for that year (0.8) by recalculating the NTSB data (1 fatal crash for 9,353,813 total departures of scheduled U.S. air carrier flights) per 1 million departures; in other words, by moving the decimal one place to the right. The comparison therefore shows a rate of 0.8 fatal crashes in IAC countries and 0.11 in the U.S. in 2018; 2.3 (IAC) and 0.10 (U.S.) in 2019; 0.0 in both IAC countries and the U.S. in 2020; and 1.9 (IAC) and 0.0 (U.S.) in 2021.
Steven E. Harris
Steven E. Harris is professor of modern Russian and European history at the University of Mary Washington. He is presently writing a book on the history of Aeroflot and authoritarianism in the Russian Jet Age from Stalin to Putin.