Russia refuses to allow European planes to land in Moscow

Retaliation over Belarus airspace row results in cancellation of flights from French and Austrian carriers

Russia has retaliated against a ban on carriers entering Belarus’s airspace by refusing to grant permission to European planes flying to Moscow.

In an apparent escalation by the Kremlin, Russian aviation authorities forced Austrian Airlines to cancel its flight from Vienna to the Russian capital. Air France also cancelled its Paris-Moscow flight for the second day in a row, after it was denied permission on Wednesday to land in Russia.

Both carriers had posted new routes bypassing Belarus. The move follows the “hijacking” on Sunday of a Ryanair plane flying between Greece and Lithuania, and the arrest of two passengers onboard, the journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Air France and Austrian Airlines were following a recommendation by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). It is unclear if Moscow’s retaliation is temporary or signals a more lasting standoff, which could in turn lead to countermeasures against the Russian national carrier Aeroflot.

Airlines including British Airways and KLM have been able to use new routes on flights to Moscow.

Airfrance отменила рейс Париж-Москва из-за отсутствия разрешения на заход в пространство России. Это связано с решением компании облетать Беларусь

Видео: очевидец, для «Новой»

— Новая Газета (@novaya_gazeta) May 26, 2021

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization agreed on Thursday to launch a speedy investigation into the Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko’s decision to down Pratasevich’s flight, as governments rush to deter copycat incidents.

The 36-member ICAO council held an “exceptional session” to “share and review the latest information available, and discuss” the forced grounding of the aircraft in Minsk, a spokesperson said.

After the meeting in Montreal, the Irish Transport minister, Eamon Ryan, said: “These unacceptable actions were an attack on European aviation security and put in danger the lives of the passengers and crew as they traveled between two EU capitals.”

Legal experts said that Belarus’s eventual expulsion from an international convention facilitating travel by its national airline around the world and by others in its airspace was likely to win the necessary majority support if Lukashenko and his Moscow-supported regime failed to back down.

Elmar Giemulla, an aviation lawyer who represented four German nationals killed in the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine, said he understood that a full assembly meeting of the ICAO, which meets every three years, would be brought forward to respond to the results of an investigation once ordered by the council.

The 1944 Chicago convention establishes common rules of aviation safety and details the rights of its signatories, of which Belarus is one. The ICAO’s members are responsible for enforcing the convention including the safe and secure crossing of flights over national airspace.

Belarus has been accused of violating its terms by forcing the pilot of the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk using false claims of a bomb onboard. A MiG-29 fighter jet sent to escort the civilian aircraft to the ground left the pilot without any other option.

G7 foreign ministers who will meet next month at a summit in Cornwall called for Pratasevich’s immediate and unconditional release, together with all other journalists and political prisoners. They were considering further sanctions on Belarus, a statement said, with potassium and petrochemicals a likely target.

The ministers accused Lukashenko of jeopardising the safety of the passengers and crew and called on the ICAO to urgently address the challenge to its rules and standards.

In response, carriers are being asked by national governments to avoid Belarus airspace, and some, such as the UK, have suspended the operating permit of Belavia, effectively banning the Belarusian airline from flying over its territory.

Expulsion from the convention would put such measures on a firmer legal basis and leave Belarus in something close to a pariah status in aviation as the safety standards of both its aircraft and ground control would not be automatically recognised.

Giemulla said: “The more countries that are members of the club the better international aviation can be performed so to exclude a member is a very hard step.

“[Belarus’s expulsion] depends on very much of the position that Mr Lukashenko takes now. If he is very stubborn, says he is master of his house, I’m a sovereign state, then the reaction must be: ‘Sorry you don’t understand: we are talking about international civil aviation and we have to exclude you.’

“The question for the ICAO is not just to punish somebody. The problem is the danger of copying. If ICAO reacts in a soft way this could encourage other autocrats in the world, and there are many of them, to ignore and disregard the international community. If this spreads all over the place, we can forget international aviation.”

Lukashenko will hold talks on Friday in Sochi with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, his main ally. Sapega’s fate is likely to be decided at the meeting, depending on whether Putin intervenes on her behalf, BBC Russia reported on Thursday. So far the Kremlin has expressed little concern over her detention.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

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