Davit Shatakishvili, Contributing Analyst, American University, Washington D.C
Since the end of last year, Moscow has been actively talking about the resumption of direct flights between Russia and Georgia. Flights were suspended after June 20, 2019, when, during the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy session, held in Tbilisi, Deputy of the Russian Duma Sergey Gavrilov took a seat in the place of the Georgian Parliamentary Chairman and held the session in Russian. The event quickly ignited a public protest. On July 8 of the same year, by the decision of the President of Russia, direct flights between the two countries were stopped. After that, the Russian side has almost annually announced “conditions” for flight renewal, which, they say, are related to stabilizing of the situation in Georgia, the cessation of the “Russo-phobic” campaign, and the prevention of any danger for Russian citizens.
On January 18, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, made a statement in which he said he hoped to resume direct flights with Georgia. Sergey Gavrilov, the main character of the 2019 events, was just one step behind him, and, along with the resumption of flights, he expressed his desire to settle diplomatic relations too. Diplomatic connections between Moscow and Tbilisi were terminated after the 2008 war, in which Russia invaded Georgia. Moscow’s January announcements were evaluated and interpreted in different ways in Tbilisi by the governmental authorities, experts and business sector representatives. It is interesting to discuss the challenges the Russian aviation industry is facing regarding the sanctions, how realistic flight resumption is, and what potential consequences there could be for Georgia.
Sanctions and their Impact on the Russian Aviation Industry
After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia became almost fully isolated from the Western world – nine packages of EU sanctions, restrictions on production and technical components, frozen reserves in European financial institutions, international companies leaving the country, isolation from the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication system, reduced energy exports, and therefore less political and economic leverage on Europe, closed airspace, personal sanctions and more, – and this is an incomplete list of restrictions around which the Western civilized world has shown unprecedented unity. And the effects of the sanctions have taken their toll, with Russia’s budget deficit last year coming in at 47 billion US dollars, largely due to declining energy revenues and increased spending on the war in Ukraine.
The Western sanctions have also targeted the Russian aviation industry. EU member states, as well as the USA, Canada and Great Britain, closed their airspace to Russian airlines. Additionally, aviation giants such as Boeing and Airbus stopped providing maintenance and spare parts for aircraft owned by Russian airlines. The consequences can already be seen. On January 9, an A320 aircraft belonging to the Russian airline “S7” was flying from the Russian city of Bratsk to Moscow, but due to a technical problem, it had to make an unexpected landing in the city of Kazan. On January 5, a plane belonging to Russian airline “Red Wings”, flying from Kazan to Yekaterinburg, had to turn back to the departure airport, because the landing gear system had failed. In the first two weeks of this year alone, there were at least 7 cases of flights experiencing technical issues.
Additionally, a few months ago, a senior transport official from the Russian Primorye region sent a letter to the Ministry of Far Eastern and Arctic Development of Russia, saying that they needed new passenger planes because the existing ones would not be able to operate from 2024. Last year, at least 9 Russian airlines ceased flight operations entirely. According to experts, Russian airlines have turned to “cannibalization” and are dismantling planes to remove the functional parts and use them in other aircraft. Last November, it was reported that Aeroflot had dismantled 25 aircraft to use their spare parts in another 18 planes. And in December, the Russian government approved “cannibalization” as a legal activity. At the same time, the largest aviation telegram channel reported that a Russian-owned jet engine company had recommended that clogged fuel filters on SuperJet 100 aircrafts be cleaned instead of replaced. The mentioned small regional planes are also produced by the Russian state company “Sukhoi”, which is facing the biggest crisis since 2008.
Potential Consequences of Flight Resumption for Georgia
A quick glance at recent history is enough to draw some important conclusions. First of all, the economic blockade of Georgia started by the Kremlin in January 2006 also affected the aviation sector, which in turn put Georgian companies in line for huge financial losses and risks. After the June 2019 events, which resulted in the suspension of direct flights from Russia, there was some fear that, due to the high dependence of Georgian tourism on Russia, the population living in the regions might be left without income. At the same time, an active campaign was launched, calling on Georgian citizens and international visitors to spend their holidays in Georgia. It can be said that the suspension of flights on July 8, 2019, did not have tangible results in terms of tourism in Georgia. Moreover, if we look at the numbers, we find that in 2019, Georgia received an unprecedented amount of incoming tourists, exceeding 9.4 million people, from which 1.4 million were Russian citizens – a record high number of incoming tourists from Russia. As such, it can be stated emphatically that the suspension of flights does not result in economic difficulties for Georgian tourism. It is a gratifying trend that the country is becoming more and more popular in European and Central Asian states, which has a positive impact on the diversification of visitors.
Another important issue in this regard is the Western sanctions. The European Union has warned Georgia that any decision to resume flights may be seen as aiding Russia in circumventing the sanctions. The European Union’s sanctions regime is considering appropriate measures against those who help Russia evade the restrictions. The US State Department in turn declared that flight resumption will pose a threat of sanctions being placed on those business entities that serve Russian companies at Georgian airports. A large number of Russian airlines are also subject to additional import and export controls. The civil safety factor is also crucial. The “International Civil Aviation Organization of the United Nations (ICAO)” has expressed extreme concern about the technical conditions of Russian aircraft and calls on Georgia not to allow dangerous Russian planes into its territory. Georgia has also been a member of the “European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation” since 2014, and is obliged to meet the requirements related to air safety.
Another issue is interesting in terms of the sanctions. Despite the restrictions, Georgia’s neighboring countries continue to accept Russian airlines, although no measures have been taken against them so far. For example, in the case of Turkey, the reason for this may be that although it did not join the Western sanctions, it has been active in its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and at the same time actively involved in the supply of weapons and drones. In the case of Azerbaijan, its energy resources and increased supply to Europe clearly play a deciding factor. At the beginning of the year, Washington strongly warned the Turkish side to stop the accepting the airplanes coming from Russia and Belarus, saying that, otherwise “appropriate sanctions” would be placed on them. Turkey’s largest aircraft service company “Havas” sent a letter to Russian and Belarusian companies warning them that they might stop servicing aircraft manufactured by American Boeing and European Airbus due to the sanctions. The list includes 170 aircraft owned by Russian airlines. According to reports from the Russian side, the consenting decision from Ankara will lead to an increase in the cost of air transportation between the two countries.
The proposal put to Georgia by Russia to renew flights can be perceived as a countermove to Turkey ceasing the provision of technical services to Russian airlines, with Georgia being considered an alternative destination in which Russian companies could receive both technical services and through which its citizens would be able to connect the world.
Flight resumption with Russia will have extremely serious political consequences for Georgia, which will in turn affect relations with strategic countries. Behind the Russian decision, experts see more political goals than commercial or technical ones. For Georgia, seeking short-term political dividends which will damage long-term strategic relations is an unwise move. With the friendly states trying to strengthen Georgia’s defense capabilities and improve overall security conditions, flight resumption and the ongoing uncontrolled influx of people fleeing mobilization will challenge the country’s national security and increase potential risks. Further, it seems that the US is set to tighten control of sanction enforcement from this year, so deciding to resume flights with Russia will most likely increase the risks of having sanctions imposed on the country.
Flight renewal will also threaten Georgia’s European future, as the decision will contribute to the deterioration of relations with the Western world, especially with the country currently awaiting candidate member status of the European Union. The human and financial flow from Russia to Georgia, and the amount of businesses and real estate now controlled by Russian citizens, has increased dramatically. Direct flights will most likely increase the number of migrants entering Georgia further, and, accordingly, their commercial activities, which will result in the country’s economy becoming more dependent on Russia and giving the Kremlin the political-economic leverage to influence Georgia. In such a scenario, future, impulsive steps from the Russian government, like those seen in 2006 and 2019, would cause a huge blow to Georgia’s economy. Thus, the statement from the US State Department that “All Western society has distanced itself from this brutal regime – now is not the time to engage with Russia” accurately expresses the opinion of the collective West, and, most importantly, does not promise an encouraging future for Georgia should it choose a different path.