Four months ago, Russia was flagged for breaching international aviation law, and the United Nations has yet to replace dozens of grounded Russian-leased aircraft as a result of the violation. The UN’s response to the International Civil Aviation Authority’s warning to Russia about its actions directly compromises the safety of critical UN peacekeeping and humanitarian missions and could potentially mean millions of dollars wasted for the organization.
The aviation problem for the UN continues as it also tries to keep the Black Sea Grain Initiative alive and as Russia is breaking the UN Charter through its illegal war in Ukraine. In addition, the American envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, visited Kyiv, the capital, on Nov. 8 to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and others to discuss the Black Sea deal, humanitarian aid for the winter and holding Russian troops accountable for their “atrocities,” among other topics.
In June, the UN’s civil aviation authority issued a Significant Safety Concern (SSC) — bulletin — to Russia for skirting aviation-related sanctions imposed by the West to punish Moscow for its war in Ukraine. Russia sidestepped the sanctions by passing a domestic law in March to enable the country to add foreign aircraft leased by its aviation industry to Russia’s own national registry. The move violated provisions of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, or Chicago Convention, and Western sanctions gave leasing companies until March 28 to terminate all Russian contracts. ICAO, as the Montreal-based specialized agency is known, also gave Russia until Sept. 14 to resolve the SSC warning, but it remains outstanding. (The UN is not the only entity affected by the ICAO violation: For example, a report in Sputnik, the Russian news site, said that Türkiye has closed its airspace to Russian planes operating with “dual registration.”)
Currently, dozens of planes and helicopters leased by the UN from Russia have been grounded since the ICAO warning was issued. The problem was addressed in a confidential Aug. 2 memo sent to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a copy of which was obtained by PassBlue, by Atul Khare, the head of the UN Department of Operational Support (DOS), and David Beasley, director of the World Food Program (WFP). They told Guterres that the ICAO bulletin warrants his “immediate attention.”
On Sept. 14, various UN missions were asked to immediately refrain from tasking their Russian-registered commercial aircraft until further notice; this applied to airplanes and helicopters, Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, told PassBlue at the time.A month later, after Russia failed to resolve the violation, UN instructions to relevant parties became more explicit. An Oct. 14 confidential “code cable,” or memo, sent by Khare to seven UN peacekeeping missions and three political missions, a copy of which was seen by PassBlue, said that attention was being “devoted” to replacing Russian aircraft “whose contracts have already expired or are likely to expire prior to the resolution of the ICAO SSC.” Until then, only “exceptional circumstances” will [Russian] aircraft be used for “emergency” medical situations and the transport of “life-support cargo,” the cable read. And “under no circumstances, should United Nations personnel be accepted as passengers on these cargo flights until further notice.”
A source close to the matter who asked for anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly about it, said three new non-Russian contracts are being awarded to three air carriers to replace Russian aircraft. However, PassBlue could not independently verify this information as the contracts have yet to be posted on the UN’s procurement website. Still, it remains to be seen if the awards under consideration will fully replace expired or soon-to-be-expired Russian aviation contracts. According to the source, no new bidding for more contracts by the UN is underway.
The outstanding Russian leases represent a sizable expense for the UN if it has to pay out the contracts regardless of the use of the aircraft. From its procurement website, PassBlue identified seven contracts worth $17 million for the leasing of Russian helicopters and associated “helicopter services” (including crews, insurance and maintenance) that are due to “potentially end” in 2023 and 2024. One is ending on Dec. 12, 2022. However, the $17 million does not represent the total amount of potential financial waste that could result if these contracts were not replaced and were left to expire. The dollar amount would depend on when the Russian aircraft and related services were grounded and how many aircraft were put on standby for “emergency circumstances,” as noted in the Oct. 14 memo.
According to the Aug. 2 memo written by Khare and Beasley, they said that if the ICAO warning to Russia was left unresolved, “approximately 45 aircraft/helicopters chartered by DOS and 17 aircraft/helicopters chartered by WFP” would be affected.
PassBlue contacted Dujarric by email on Oct. 24 to ask whether the UN will continue to pay out contracts for grounded Russian aircraft. Dujarric replied that he had no new information. (On Sept. 16, he said in an email to PassBlue about Russia’s civil aviation violation and its effects on UN operations, “While we are taking mitigating measures, this development obviously seriously impacts our ability to operate in our peacekeeping and political missions.”)
As PassBlue previously reported, Western sanctions meant to cripple Russia’s aviation industry after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 resulted in Moscow “double-registering” foreign aircraft to its own national registry, seizing property illegally. The resulting ICAO bulletin had alerted the international community that Russian aircraft were no longer recognized by the agency as “airworthy.”
The bulletin, however, “does not necessarily indicate a particular safety deficiency,” according to ICAO, but indicates that a member state — in this case, Russia — “is not providing sufficient safety oversight to ensure the effective implementation of applicable ICAO Standards.”
PassBlue contacted the spokesperson for the Russian mission to the UN to find out if Moscow is trying to resolve the ICAO warning but got no response. In an email, PassBlue asked ICAO’s press office how Russia could fix the violation and was told to “direct our requests directly to the state of interest.”
Meanwhile, ICAO President Salvatore Sciacchitano, an Italian, was in New York City on Oct. 31 to brief the UN Security Council on the “forced landing” of RyanAir flight FR4978 by Belarus on May 23, 2021. In another email to ICAO’s press office, PassBlue asked if Sciacchitano planned to meet with Guterres, Khare of DOS or Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia to discuss the status of the Significant Safety Concern. Instead of answering the question, the spokesperson directed PassBlue to an ICAO press release on the Ryanair topic.
Besides certain UN peacekeeping and political missions, the World Food Program, which delivers food and other aid to approximately 80 countries annually, also relies on Russian aircraft to do its work. However, in an email to PassBlue on Sept. 28, Steve Taravella, the agency’s senior spokesperson, said that ICAO’s safety concern has “forced” the aid organization to decide with “immediate effect” that “Russian Federation-registered air carriers chartered for the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (Unhas) and WFP operations will only operate cargo flights for life-saving operations until further notice.”
Taravella added that Unhas passenger flights for humanitarian workers have been “temporarily suspended” and that the “WFP is actively working to replace the affected aircraft, with some replacements already arriving where urgently needed.” PassBlue asked for more details in a follow-up email on Oct. 20, and Taravella said the agency had nothing more to “share at this point.”
Managed by the World Food Program, Unhas is a humanitarian air service that provides what it calls “safe” and “cost-efficient” transport for passenger and cargo transport “to and from areas of crisis and intervention.” According to its website, in 2021, the WFP helped 128.2 million people in over 120 countries and territories.
The 10 peacekeeping and political missions that received the Oct. 14 cable from Khare included the Support Office in Somalia (Unsos), the mission in South Sudan (Unmiss), the mission in Western Sahara (Minurso), Monusco, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), the Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), the mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca), the Interim Security Force for Abyei (Unisfa), Minusma, in Mali and the UN Verification Mission in Colombia.
In an email to PassBlue, Unama confirmed that although it was copied on the memo, the mission did not “have any Russian aircraft at this time.” Ari Gaitanis, the spokesperson for Unsos, said the mission could not comment on “operational matters,” or “aviation assets.” However, Ben Dotsei Malor, the chief of communication and public information for Unmiss, confirmed that “a total of 11 Russian rotary wing air assets” — helicopters — out of a current total of 24 have been grounded.” PassBlue did not receive responses from the remaining seven missions.
Grounding Russian air assets affects every aspect of a UN mission, said a source familiar with peacekeeping operations who asked to remain anonymous, given the subject’s sensitivity. “I mean, the Congo is perhaps the most evident country where they are completely reliant on their air fleet because there are no roads between Kinshasa [Congo’s capital] and Goma,” located approximately 1,600 miles east of Kinshasa, a trip that could take at least 50 hours by road. “So, because air operations are so integral and fundamental to peacekeeping logistics and sustainment, the moment you take away the air component, many peacekeeping missions will come to a standstill.”
(Additionally, crucial Ukrainian air assets used by Monusco were repatriated soon after the war by Russia began last winter, PassBlue reported exclusively.)
Monusco, which is headquartered in Kinshasa, was established in 2010 to support the stabilization and peace efforts of the government and to protect civilians, humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders “under imminent threat of physical violence,” its website says. As of June 2022, Monusco deployed more than 18,000 troops, volunteers and mission experts and roughly 16,000 military personnel, police and military observers, all of which are exposed to the same violence and uncertainty that Congolese civilians face.
From May 1948, when the UN established its first peacekeeping mission, through August 2022, 4,245 peacekeeper deaths have been recorded, according to the UN. Moreover, the risk of death or serious injury could increase when peacekeepers don’t have access to critical air services that have been taken out of service or have been grounded. The lack of such essentials can chip away at peacekeepers’ defensive abilities and morale while leaving them physically vulnerable.
Broken down by cause of death since 1948, 1,454 peacekeepers have died from illness; 1,382 by accident; 1,100 by malicious act; and 309 peacekeeper deaths are listed as “other.”
“It’s critical in the sense that [air power] is one of the few advantages the UN has over armed groups and those who threaten UN forces,” said the source knowledgeable with peacekeeping. “Being able to have helicopters to project power, it’s really a competitive advantage.”
“But perhaps the most important aspect is the moral dimension,” the person added. “Without any air support, there will be no CASEVAC and relief for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.”
Casualty evacuation, or CASEVAC, is a military term that refers to the emergency evacuation and transportation of critically wounded civilians or soldiers. Some peacekeeping missions may be reluctant to deploy troops without such services.
“So I’d say the biggest impact is the moral aspect,” the source said. “I think it’s the most important, because we owe it to the peacekeepers to have this protection that air support provides.”
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