Monday, May 20, 2024
Grief, pain and hardship – not just for Ukraine but Russia too

Grief, pain and hardship – not just for Ukraine but Russia too

Chris Lewis, acting editor, ACW

Less than two months ago, I was talking to one of Antonov Airlines senior managers about the carrier’s hopes and expectations for 2022. We talked about the Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders and I think we dismissed the threat of invasion as unlikely. What sane person would want to get embroiled in a major land war with a large neighbouring state? There was just too much to lose – for everyone.

Now, at the time of writing, a battle is raging between Russian troops and Ukrainian defenders for the Antonov Airlines base at Hostomel, just 10km north of the Kyiv urban area. It still seems completely unreal.

We were told, off the record, that the base had been evacuated and that all staff were safe, which we can only hope is correct. It’s impossible to verify anything at the present time.

For those who cared to look, it was possible to see the seeds of the conflict in the events of the past decade – even within the airfreight industry itself. From 2006 until the end of 2016, Antonov partnered with Russian-based Volga-Dnepr in the Ruslan joint venture to operate the fleet of An124 aircraft, the workhorse of the oversize cargo industry. But with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014, the writing was clearly on the wall and although it was never officially stated as the reason, the political situation had clearly become intolerable and the two companies went their separate ways, each marketing and operating their own fleets of around a dozen An124s each. Antonov also ended up in possession of the even bigger and unique An225, an aircraft that was reported to have been destroyed in the fighting for Antonov Airlines’ base at Hostomel, near Kyev on 27 February.

Volga-Dnepr Group also has five of the slightly smaller but still formidable Ilyushin IL76TD-90VDs. It is, or was, quite deeply entrenched in the global airfreight market through its scheduled arm, AirBridgeCargo which flies 13 747-F freighters all over the world, and it has the UK-based CargoLogic company with its two 747 freighters.

Antonov later took steps to replace the Russian components in its aircraft with equipment sourced elsewhere reasoning, correctly, that support for navigation and other systems would no longer be available.

The Ukraine and US governments had meanwhile signed an open skies agreement in 2015 which removed the need to apply for charter permits in that market, perhaps giving it an advantage over its Russian rival. However, this did not prevent Volga-Dnepr from pursuing commercial opportunities all over the world and mounting a vigorous marketing and public relations campaign.

Bizarrely, on the very day that Russia mounted its full-scale invasion, I received an emailed press release from Volga-Dnepr explaining how it was partnering with a humanitarian aid organisation. Perhaps it’s not just your correspondent who is struggling to keep a grasp on reality.

With the human tragedy unfolding, the airfreight world should look beyond is immediate concerns but clearly, the effect of the Ukraine war on the industry will be huge. It seems inconceivable that the West will tolerate the use of Russian-owned aircraft by its companies to move cargo and the current disposition of the Antonov Airlines fleet is unknown.

But clearly, a significant proportion of the world’s freighter capacity, and a very large chunk of the global fleet able to carry outsize cargo, will be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s military adventure in Ukraine will lead not just to its physical as well as political isolation from the rest of the world. Even from the very narrow standpoint of freight transport, the country’s links with the outside world are quite limited. With only a couple of ports including St Petersburg on its north-west seaboard and the main historic link to the south through ports in Ukraine, it is heavily dependent on overland rail and road links for any traffic to or from Europe and the West, all of which could be cut off by the West if – and it is a sizeable ‘if’ – it the latter can summon up the collective political will to do so.

Trade with China and that via ports such as Vostochniy or Vladivostok in Russia’s far east might continue, but costs will be increased and the transport options severely limited.

Of course, there will always be those able and willing to evade sanctions – we learned that during the long years of dealing with Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa – but any blockade will increase costs and severely limit the available range of consumer durables.

So, we can all look forward to many months, if not years of grief and hardship. But much of the pain will be felt in Russia itself.

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