Belarusian sanctions threaten air and land routes

Air freight

The effects of the interdiction of a passenger flight by Belarusian authorities on Sunday (May 23, 2021) threatens disruption to air and possibly land transport between Europe and China.

The Lukashenko regime in Minsk took the unusual step of intercepting a flight between Athens and Vilnius, arresting at gunpoint an opponent of the regime who was a passenger on the Ryanair aircraft. The aircraft was forced to land by agents on board the aircraft who threatened to detonate a bomb if the flight did not land in Minsk, combined with an interception by the Belarusian airforce.

The reaction by neighbouring countries to what was approaching an act of air piracy has been substantial. The European Union has imposed a flight ban. The European Council, which is composed of the leaders of the member nations of the EU, issued a statement calling for a “ban [of] overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines” as well as “all EU-based carriers to avoid overflight of Belarus”. Britain and the US are moving towards similar policies.

It is being reported in the press that France has argued for a ban on all movement by land as well although this was rejected by other members of the EU so far.

The effects of the ban on flights in and out of Belarus is unlikely to have a major effect on air transport as the traffic volume are so low, however, the issue of over-flights is another matter.

A significant proportion of flights to China, Japan and South Korea will pass over Belarusian airspace. Presumably, this is banned at least for airlines based in the EU. Re-routing flights should not be too difficult, although it may add to flight times and thus reduce the capacity for cargo. The alternative routes are over Ukraine and southern Russia, which for now present few problems but in the medium-term may also be vulnerable to political disruption. Indeed, it is being suggested that Russia aided Belarusian authorities in intercepting the aircraft, implying action may be taken against Russia as well.

Russia has a history of interfering with over-flight rights, so the issue is already lurking in the political background. Such is the extreme nature of the Belarusian action on Sunday that the effects could spread to relations with Moscow. If so, the impact on airfreight routes between East Asia and Europe would be significant.

Any suggestion of interruption land transport would also be problematic. The Eurasian Landbridge rail services pass through Belarus in order to reach the Małaszewicze intermodal terminal on the Polish border. Halting this traffic would largely remove the Landbridge as a viable freight option, although there are alternatives through the southern Caucasus.

The Europe-Asia air and land routes are amongst the most important transport corridors in the World. Disrupting them will have significant impacts on logistics markets and the wider economy.

Source: Transport Intelligence, May 25, 2021

Author: Thomas Cullen