Following the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger jetliner last weekend, the EU embargoed Belarusian airlines from crossing European airspace or landing at any EU airport. Meanwhile, leading
EU politicians have announced imposing “additional harsh sanctions” which will negatively impact the Belarusian economic and financial system.
In a first reaction, autocrat Lukashenko has threatened countermeasures of considerable magnitude, targeting the transport sector among others.
In a speech full of verbal aggression against the EU, his own opposition, and critical media, the Belarus ruler announced intentions to pay back the EU sanctions “in the same coin,” as
stated last Wednesday (26MAY21). Specifically, he mentioned the transport sector as a key focus on his government’s list of retaliations.
Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko sang from the same song-sheet. In coordination with Lukashenko's general attack against all critics of his regimes, the politician said: “These measures will be quite painful for the countries that have adopted an openly hostile attitude.” They include restrictions on transit, he stressed.
Although both politicians did not specify any mode of transport, there are basically only two viable options for sanctions to be imposed by the Lukashenko regime: Transcontinental cargo trains crossing Belarusian territory, and trucks operating on the same trans-Eurasian route linking the EU and the Far East. Maritime traffic can be left out because landlocked Belarus has no access to any seaport.
Puppet Lukashenko hanging on Putin’s strings
Especially for cargo trains running across the Eurasian land bridge, of which most are routed through Belarus, there are little alternative operational options. In the south, it would be Ukraine, but this is not a real alternative due to the war between Russia-oriented separatists and the Kiev government, in the eastern part of the country. Bypassing Belarus via the Baltic states, crossing the Russian border north of Belarus could basically work, but extends the runtimes because of the detour, and might be blocked by Moscow, Lukashenko’s closest (and last) ally.
Transcontinental cargo trains are not sanctioned – yet!
So far, the “counter measures” proclaimed by the Minsk government still seem to remain in the drawer. To this hour, cargo trains crossing the Eurasian land bridge and running through Belarus are still operated according to schedule, a company spokesman for Rail Freight Transports of Deutsche Bahn AG, confirms. “At this stage, it is too early to say anything about the possible impact of the political incident on rail transits through Belarus,” he adds.
David Stoeppler, corporate spokesman for DHL Global Forwarding, delivers a similar statement: “There are currently no indications of any interruptions or restrictions in train traffic (across Belarus). However, we are, of course, keeping an eye on the situation.”
In contrast, in air traffic, the first consequences of the sanctions are already visible.
Air France reported that a flight from Paris to Moscow had to be canceled “for operational reasons related to the bypassing of Belarusian airspace” and the requirement of “new authorization from the Russian authorities to enter their territory.” The same happened to a flight operated by Austrian Airlines taking from Vienna to Moscow last Thursday. However, the aircraft didn’t take off after the Russian side had refused permission to fly around Belarus.
The two incidents are likely to be a first, small pinprick by Moscow against Western airlines, and a clear signal of support towards Minsk. After all, it is Putin's interest to increase Belarus' political, military and economic dependence on the Kremlin and make it a vassal state.
No flights, no overflight fees
The lack of flights of EU airlines crossing Belarus airspace tears a hole in the coffers of the Lukashenko government. Aviation experts speak of 30 million euros per year.
As result of the EU decisions, flights operated on the sector Far East - Amsterdam, circumventing Belarus, “are delayed by a maximum of 5 minutes due to bypassing Belarus,” reports Communications Officer, Gerard Roelfzema of AFKLMP Cargo. His colleague, Andreas Pauker of Lufthansa Cargo, speaks of additional 10 to 20 minutes his company’s freighter flights take on routes between Frankfurt - Shanghai or Frankfurt - Beijing. In contrast, “our Seoul and Japan services are routed further north via Scandinavia, and operate according to schedule,” Mr. Pauker confirms. Flying across Ukraine territory is no option, he adds. “We do not use the country’s airspace as a matter of principle.”
Following the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jetliner by a Russian BUK missile over eastern Ukraine territory, Western airlines have taken the region off their flight paths.
More sanctions to come
Meanwhile, leading EU politicians have announced further sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, among them German Secretary of State, Heiko Maas. “They will target the economic structure and financial system in Belarus; for instance, the export of potash, a national resource generating much needed foreign cash”, he indicated.
Binding decisions on this are to be taken at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on 21JUN21. It can be assumed that until then, the autocratic rulers of financially weak Belarus will not further escalate the spiral of sanctions.
Over the weekend, Minsk-based state carrier Belavia announced the thinning out of its network. As many as 25 destinations in 17 countries are not served any longer after the EU and UK closed their airspace for Belarusian flights following the hijacking of a Ryanair flight and the confinement of two passengers after landing.
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