In mid-March, the Russian media was celebrating the fact that air service had been restored to a part of rural Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, a federal subject in the Russian Far East, that had not seen any civilian planes for 25 years. Since then, however, many Russian carriers have cut back on the number of flights around the country or even suspended a large fraction altogether due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, which have caused a collapse in demand (Nazaccent.ru, March 18; Kuzbass85.ru, March 31). Thus far, only one domestic carrier has completely canceled its service—Pobeda, until the end of May. And only one region, Chechnya, has, to date, blocked non-resident air travelers from entering its territory, forcing planes to land in neighboring Ingushetia (Novaya Gazeta, March 27). But other regional governments are also considering such moves, potentially leaving large portions of the Russian Federation without transportation links on which they and Moscow depend.
This trend shows no signs of abating anytime soon, and it may soon strengthen. Russian aviation experts like Roman Gusarov, who edits Avia.ru and works as a government consultant, say it is highly likely that Moscow will soon take the next step and ground all domestic flights until the pandemic passes (Actualcomment.ru, March 27). Indeed, the pressure to do just that has been intensified by a dramatic uptick in the number of bomb threats against domestic Russian flights (360tv.ru, March 19; Rtvi, March 5).
At one level, this is simply the domestic echo of what Moscow has been doing more visibly with regard to international flights. In January, Moscow suggested Russian nationals should not visit China because of the pandemic; in February, it added Italy, Iran and South Korea to that list; and on March 27, the Russian government suspended international flights except for charters to bring Russians home as part of its plan to close the country’s borders to fight the novel coronavirus outbreak (Actualcomment.ru, March 27).
At another level, the closures will likely have far more serious consequences given the importance of air transportation in a country that cannot easily shift transport from air to ground, especially east of the Urals. Ending or suspending flights will leave many people far from Moscow without the food and other supplies they count on. This has begun to spark talk about Moscow’s failures and the need for regions to rely only on themselves or even secede (Ekho Moskvy , , March 30; Region.expert, March 28, 29).
So far, at least, that is just talk, but the suspension or diversion of flights is already having serious political consequences in at least one place—the North Caucasus. Chechnya’s decision to close its borders to fight the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the already tense relations between that republic and neighboring Ingushetia (see EDM, September 27, 2018 and January 14, 2020) and even more between Chechens and Ingush. Without consulting Ingushetia, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov has blocked a highway out of Ingushetia, creating multi-kilometer-long lines at the border. Additionally, Chechen government restrictions on airlines have forced Moscow–Grozny flights to land in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, and discharge all passengers there (Novaya Gazeta, March 27; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, April 1).
Both acts are infuriating the Ingush, but the discharging of Grozny-bound air passengers in their republic is especially controversial. While it is entirely reasonable for a region to defend itself against an epidemic, Ingush argue, it is not reasonable for Chechnya’s defense to harm its neighbors—as would occur if potentially infected people are compelled to pass through Ingushetian territory (Fortanga, March 30). And the Ingush are certain that this rerouting of flights could not have happened without Moscow’s support and Magas’ acquiescence. One Ingush told the independent Fortanga news portal that, apparently, the authorities think Ingush can be exposed to the deadly virus as long as the Chechens are protected. At present, two flights a day that had been going to Grozny have been rerouted to Magas. The airport does receive compensatory landing fees, but no one is protecting airport workers against possible exposure beyond providing some hand sanitizer. More worrisome, no one is decontaminating the gates through which the Grozny passengers pass or the facilities they use. And no one (neither Chechen passengers nor Ingush workers) is maintaining the recommended social distancing to avoid becoming infected.
According to the Fortanga portal, “[T]he Ingush segment of the Internet has literally exploded with expressions of anger about what is taking place.” One Ingush said that his nation had always tried to help the Chechens, even in the 1990s, out of a sense of fraternity. But the contentious land swap deal between the two republic’s governments in September 2018 has changed all that. And another commented that “no oblast or republic has ‘self-isolated’ itself the way Chechnya has. Perhaps, Kadyrov wants to isolate himself from Russia? His predecessors in the 1990s made such an effort. But now is a critical moment—oil prices are falling, there is an economic crisis and the pandemic, plus [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s attempt to rewrite the constitution” (Fortanga, March 30).
A further shutting down of domestic air routes in Russia will only add to these problems and spread them, calling into question the future of Russia’s already deeply troubled domestic air transportation network (see EDM, June 21, 2017, October 25, 2018, May 15, 2019), one that has been in almost free fall since the end of Soviet times. Despite Moscow’s promises to reverse its decline, today there are fewer than 230 airfields with scheduled civilian passenger flights, compared to 1,450 thirty years ago. Russia, the largest country in the world, now has fewer airports than Alaska—the US state has 282—a development that is far more serious for a country that relies on air travel because of the lack of comprehensive highway or rail routes on much of its territory. In the coming months, Russia will have even fewer scheduled flights—and in some places, perhaps none at all (Sovsekretno.ru, December 25, 2017).