By James Disalvatore
May 23, 2023
Russian airlines have been importing western-manufactured parts and equipment via third country-based intermediaries in order to bypass international sanctions and export controls, according to a Kharon investigation. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian airlines directly acquired spare parts for their aircraft directly from manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing, and Safran.
A detailed examination of available customs data by Kharon reveals that Russian airlines imported goods worth almost USD 14 billion between February 2022 and February 2023. This figure is more than five times higher than the previous year when imports were valued at nearly USD 2.4 billion.
After the initial imposition of sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine, two Kyrgyz companies, Cargoline LLC and AKKA Aviation Services LLC, quickly became involved in the sale of Western-manufactured aircraft components to Russia. Since that time, the two firms have shipped parts worth approximately USD 11 million manufactured by Airbus, Boeing, Honeywell and others to Russian civil aviation companies listed under the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Denied Persons List (DPL), according to a Kharon review of trade data.
The companies exhibit red flags identified by the U.S. government as indicators of possible export controls violations. Cargoline was founded in March 2022, only one month after the start of the war in Ukraine, and began shipping millions of dollars of Western made aviation equipment to Russian airlines subject to export controls. To date, Cargoline LLC lacks a website or any online presence.
Active since at least 2008, AKKA Aviation Services LLC provides ground services to chartered flights at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. As of September 2022, the company began shipping aircraft parts to Russia, according to trade data.
Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline with a fleet of 179 aircraft as of May 2023, similarly has relied on third-country intermediaries to import western parts since 2022, according to its website.
From March 2022 until February 2023, Dubai-based ATS Heavy Equipment sent over 800 shipments of Western-manufactured aircraft parts to Rossiya Airlines – an Aeroflot subsidiary targeted by U.S. export controls and U.K. sanctions. A review of trade data shows that the firm had not sent shipments of any type to Russia prior to March 2022. The company's website indicates that it also serves other major Middle Eastern and European airlines.
The Broader Impact of Sanctions and Export Controls on Russian Civil Aviation
Following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Western countries implemented sanctions and export controls that directly affected Russian commercial airlines. The European Union banned Russian civil aviation from its airspace and prohibited the export of spare parts and services for Russian-owned or operated aircraft. Soon after, major aircraft manufacturers announced the suspension of parts sales to Russia. In April 2022, the United States initiated a ban on exports to Russian airlines, and in May 2022 the United Kingdom imposed sanctions on Aeroflot and other Russian carriers.
Consequently, Russian aviation carriers encountered significant challenges in maintaining and repairing their aircraft, resulting in well-documented struggles. Reports emerged in 2022 of planes being cannibalized for parts, and in December, a Russian government decree legitimized this practice.
Aeroflot, for its part, primarily operates Boeing and Airbus aircraft. The sole Russian-made plane in its fleet relies on engines made by a Franco-Russian joint venture that ceased operations and was subsequently cut off from further spare parts supplies in March 2022. In April 2023, Aeroflot resorted to sending an Airbus to Iran for servicing by Mahan Air, a carrier sanctioned by the United States.