On March 11, 2014, a Ukrainian plane approaching Crimea’s Simferopol airport was denied the permission to land. By that time, the air control tower in Crimea had already been seized by Russian forces.
The takeover of Crimea’s airport marked a critical juncture in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Six years later, only Russian aircraft can fly to and from Crimea, reflecting the ongoing conflict over the peninsula. In January, politicians in Crimea and the Kremlin claimed that international flights would begin operating in March. If it weren't for the coronavirus which grounded flights across Europe, could that claim have materialised? LRT FACTS investigates.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in spring 2014, Ukraine banned all flights to the peninsula.
International air safety organisations, including Eurocontrol and the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), recognise Ukraines souvereignty over the airspace above Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Eurocontrol followed Kyiv’s lead in closing the airspace to all flights, while ICAO said it would no longer certify international flights as protected by international law. This means that no airline can claim insurance in the event of an accident, according to the US-based Jamestown Foundation thinktank.
Meanwhile only flights to Russia connect Crimea, but the Kremlin is eager to break the international isolation – rhetorically if not in practice.
In January, Alexey Chernyak, the head of Crimea’s current parliamentary committee for tourism, told RIA Novosti that first international flights from Simferopol to Armenia’s capital Yerevan would begin in March.
Chernyak claimed the Russian airline Ikar had already been granted permission to operate the route and only technicalities remained to be worked out. “The flights are planned to take twice per week starting in March. More, if there’s a demand, but no more than seven times a week,” he said.
Meanwhile Crimea’s current prime minister, Yury Gotsanyuk, also praised the renovated Simferopol airport, saying its “infrastructure allows international flights”.
“Our airport is ready to offer good conditions for airlines that would like to organise domestic and international flights,” he said.
When contacted by LRT FACTS, Armenia’s Civil Aviation Council denied the claims made by the Russian authorities.
“For getting permission to operate scheduled flights to or from Armenia, foreign airline should have a designation sent through the diplomatic channels and hold a traffic rights authorisation from relevant civil aviation authorities,” the council told LRT FACTS in a written statement.
The aviation council also previously said that no negotiations with Russia’s Ikar airlines, or any other businesses, had taken place.
Meanwhile Russian media claimed that the country’s Transport Ministry turned to the Foreign Ministry, asking it to send a diplomatic note to Armenia in protest.
Oleksandr Laneckij, a consultant for aviation firms in Eastern Europe, told LRT FACTS in February that it would be theoretically possible to start flights to Crimea in March.
However, the statements of Crimea’s authorities are merely political and reflect Russia’s attempts to portray occupied territories as souvereign entities, according to Laneckij. Similar statements appeared periodically in other annexed or Russian-backed separatist regions, he added.
Since 2009, Moscow has been promising to bring international flights to Abkhazia which broke away from Georgia in the 1990s after a Russian-backed insurgency. Similarly to the so-called republics in Eastern Ukraine, Abkhazia remains largely unrecognised by the rest of the world.
Following the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea, Russian authorities offered financial and other incentives to Russian companies to increase transport links with the peninsula.
However, large Russian companies that also operate abroad have stayed away due to the threat of Western sanctions, according to Laneckij.
“There was an attempt in 2015 to establish a budget airline Dobrolet” which would have been based in Crimea, said Laneckij. “There was a very firm [international] reaction: Ukraine and the US blacklisted the firm during its first weeks of operation and foreign companies couldn’t work with it.”
“Although the airline was Russian, the planes were leased from [companies in] foreign countries,” he said. Therefore, the businesses are not interested in operating flights from Crimea as their owners “might end up in jail somewhere in America,” he added.
For the same reason, only branches of small Russian banks operate in Crimea, said Laneckij.
Armenia caught between East and West
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia has maintained a close relationship with Russia. Following the 2018 revolution, newly appointed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan went to Sochi on his first foreign visit to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The country belongs to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and also hosts a large Russian military base.
However, Laneckij said the close relationship might not be enough to ward off fears posed by Western economic sanctions.
Although, “if Russia and its partner want [to establish flights], it’s unlikely that Ukraine will be able to stop it,” Laneckij told LRT FACTS. A similar precedent happened in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprusw where international flights started operating after years of isolation, he added.
Laneckij also claimed that Armenia’s aviation authorities were more orientated towards the West.
Civil aviation insurance doesn’t apply to flights over conflict zones and airlines cannot operate uninsured planes, said Laneckij.
“However, airlines currently operating in the peninsula rely on policies issued by Russian insurers,” he said. Therefore, as long as international bodies consider Crimea to be a conflict zone, only Russian firms will provide aviation insurance to domestic airlines.
Before the annexation, Crimea used to be a popular international resort. Flights to Turkey, Russia, countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as seasonal flights to the Baltic states and Germany connected the peninsula to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile in 2019, some 95 percent of all tourists in Crimea came from Russia, according to Russia’s statistics bureau in the peninsula. It will likely remain so in the foreseeable future.
Moscow attempts to portray the Russian-sponsored breakaway ‘republics’ and annexed regions as independent and sovereign. Therefore, promising international flights between Armenia and Crimea fits the Kremlin’s propaganda narrative. Meanwhile Armenia’s aviation authorities told LRT FACTS that no negotiations to start flights to and from Crimea had taken place. According to the interviewed aviation expert, the threat of Western sanctions are preventing international flights in Crimea for now, whereas conflict zone status has disrupted air traffic over the region. The fear of sanctions has also made Russian companies to so far avoid operating international flights to or from Crimea.