The Moscow headquartered transport company, best known for their fleet of mighty AN-124 freighters, have decided to terminate their Ruslan Salis commitment. By quitting the Strategic
Airlift Interim Solution contract, they no longer carry any military equipment or humanitarian goods on behalf of most NATO and EU states as has been the case since the inception of Leipzig,
Germany-based Salis in 2006. But the decision could be part of a big poker game between the Russian capacity provider and western countries.
Volga-Dnepr’s decision to quit SALIS doesn’t come unexpectedly, seen against the background of increasing tensions between Russia and western countries over Syria and other conflicting issues. In
a message sent to the SALIS steering Board on 12 April, Volga-Dnepr Airlines has announced their intention to exit the deal. In spite of intense negotiations following the company’s SALIS
notification, their contractual western partners could not motivate them to abandon their planned exit.
Officially, Volga-Dnepr told their counterparts that a decision had been taken by their headquarters to no longer carry any military equipment but focus on transporting civilian, humanitarian and commercial goods instead for which their western public clients have little demand.
During the SALIS negotiations, the carrier’s management indicated that its decision is also based on the 2017 signed Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which imposed new sanctions on North Korea, Russia and Iran. Further the V-D side pointed out that the U.S. Transportation Command, awarding special airlift missions on behalf of the Washington administration had ended their relationship with Volga-Dnepr in 2015, despite roughly 13,000 flights operated by the Russian company for U.S. Transcom between 2002 and 2014 to the satisfaction of the client.
Optional transport solutions are not in sight
After Volga-Dnepr’s SALIS exit, the uplift capacity of large aircraft NATO and EU can make use of is sharply reduced, from 2,300 hours per year to 900h, guaranteed by the AN-124F fleet of Ukrainian operator Antonov Airlines. How SALIS will compensate the loss of V-D capacity for maintaining the strategic global transport tasks asked for by EU and NATO has not been answered so far, since western-built large freighters are not fit for operating at airports that do not provide adequate loading and unloading equipment. It also remains to be seen what the future of Volga-Dnepr’s Leipzig, Germany-based large maintenance facility will be or if it has any perspective at all.
This puts the western states under massive pressure. Because no supplier in a NATO or EU country operates cargo aircraft that are equipped with own hydraulic loading systems as are the AN-124s which – in contrast to Boeing or Airbus freighters - enables them to serve remote airports without modern technical equipment.
A situation that Volga Dnepr boss Alexey Isaikin is well aware of. Supported by the Saxon state’s government he has been endeavoring to strengthen his group’s position at Leipzig-Halle for quite some time. At first glance, V-D’s Salis exit seems to contradict this airm. However, when taking a second look, many aspects speak in favor of a tactical decision. In particular it is Isaikin’s plan to apply for a German AOC, to base an own cargo airline at LEJ. A job, recently entrusted to Ulrich Ogiermann, the former Cargo Chief of Qatar Airways and Cargolux (CargoForwarder Global, 14 April).
Once the AOC request is okayed by the German regulator Luftfahrt-Bundesamt, Volga-Dnepr's AN-124s could return to Leipzig and resume traffic for NATO and European countries in the name of the new company registered under German law. Also, they would then no longer be affected by the boycott of spare parts of the Ukrainian manufacturer Antonov, because a Germany licensed carrier operating AN-124s will hardly be cut off of technical supplies by the Ukrainians.
The outcome of this game of poker between the Russian freight airline and their NATO / EU counterparts remains to be seen.