Who takes the blame?


The spat between Russia and Sri Lanka over detaining an Aeroflot flight at the BIA on 2 June is a warning to Sri Lanka to avoid jeopardising not only the Russians, but also to be wary of Russia’s actions, since it waged war on Ukraine, when several countries, including China, have taken precautionary measures by closing their airspace to Russia.

Reuters quotes that the Russian state-owned airline has been crippled by sanctions and a lack of parts. A US$ 3 billion emergency rights issue backed by the Government will add to Moscow’s fiscal woes, as Russia’s isolation deepens.

The West has been assertive and vociferous about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused Russian outbound tourism handsomely. Russia, which has been severely hampered by worldwide Covid-19 travel restrictions, plummeted even lower as a result of Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine.

On 18 March, the Heads of Mission to Sri Lanka, urged the Government of Sri Lanka to join them in vocal support for Ukraine and international law, including the UN Charter and join them in calling on Russia to end its hostilities immediately, however, the Government said they would remain “neutral” and ready to embrace all countries without prejudice.

Having paid a deaf ear to the EU, Sri Lanka also treated Russia rudely when Russian travellers came in big numbers to Sri Lanka during Covid-19, giving some hope to Sri Lanka’s battered tourism sector. On the last Aeroflot flight, there were 191 passengers on board, who were asked to disembark and the flight was detained for over 24 hours. There was total confusion, as Sri Lankan officials, knowing the challenges Russia is facing over the Ukraine War, did not know how to react, considering there is a geopolitical factor to it, and the reaction seems to be only blaming those lawyers who carried their message across to the BIA, whereas the Government officials showed no remorse.

SLATCA’s explanation

The story floated by the Air Traffic Controllers’ Association of Sri Lanka (SLATCA) on 7 June, was that they were instructed twice over the telephone by the Court Registrar of the Commercial High Court of Colombo to prevent the aircraft bearing flight number SU-289 from departing Colombo and then by a Fiscal Officer attached to the said Court accompanied by an Attorney, who had conveyed the same message.

Thereby, the Head of Air Navigation Services had promptly consulted relevant State authorities with statutory powers to decide on such a matter and acted with the concurrence of them. The initial action had been to temporarily delay the departure of the flight until a clarification was received through the DG of CAASL and the Attorney General’s Department. But the clarification had not reached within the day of 2 June 2022, hence, the flight had remained on ground. The clarification had been obtained directly from the Commercial High Court of Colombo on the following day and the subsequent action by the Head of Air Navigation Services and Air Traffic Controllers had been in accordance with the Court directives. SLATCA said, they stand in solidarity with the Head of Air Navigation Services and wish to inform the public not to be misled by incorrect information.

Due to the fracas, on 4 June, Russia’s biggest airline, Aeroflot, suspended flights to Colombo.

The Colombo Commercial High Court suspended the Injunction Order preventing the Aeroflot flight from departing Sri Lanka on 6 June and within a few hours, at 6:00 p.m., the flight left the country for the last time. There were profound apologies from the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, the Cabinet Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice Ministry, and Airport and Aviation, the Justice Minister, Airport and Aviation Minister, the BIA, and CAASL officials, but the disturbing thing is that Sri Lanka has become a laughing stock to the Russians, as the Government meddled with a commercial dispute, and this might anger the European Union, as the EU is having problems recovering aircraft leased to Russia. They all blamed the Fiscal Officer at the end of the day.

In fact, some argue that the AG shouldn’t have represented the Government when it was a matter for Aeroflot to hire a lawyer and the Commercial Court to deal with it.

Adding to this, the Sri Lanka Ex-Air Traffic Controllers’ Association expressed its expectation and confidence that any new precautionary steps/procedures that might be deemed necessary are introduced in a timely fashion, in order to avoid recurrence of any similar unnecessary exposure of the Chief Air Traffic Controller/Head of ANS and/or any other Air Traffic Controller to any such undue vulnerability, enabling them to continue carrying out their legitimate functions and duties with no fear, nor favour in the future as well.

Many have criticised and denounced the infamous aggressive acts and behaviour of the Fiscal Officer and a Lawyer when serving the Court Order in an intimidating manner to the Head of Air Navigation Services in his office. However, the BIA and CAASL are government personnel in charge of operations on the ground. It is alleged that the Fiscal Officer had overpowered the officials at the BIA to halt the plane. It is only for that reason he was interdicted, but the order came from the Commercial Court Judge to detain the flight. 

“It is not that the Ukraine war will not have a huge impact on Sri Lanka when inviting Russian tourists,” said Udayanga Weeratunga, who has coordinated Russia-Sri Lanka tourism promotion. “If we don’t get this little income from tourism, then it’s a lost game. No funds are coming to Sri Lanka, as expected,” he said.

“However, Sri Lanka has not asked for fuel from Russia and Russia did not say it would sell oil to Sri Lanka. But the Russian Federation has not yet announced that they would lift the suspension of Aeroflot flights to Colombo and their assistance to Sri Lanka is on the fence,” added Weeratunga.

Before 24 February 2022, Aeroflot flew to 146 destinations in 52 countries. Now, the number has dropped to 12 destinations, mainly in Russia and Belarus.

Bad blood

After the 191 passengers were removed from the aircraft, Aeroflot suspended flights to Sri Lanka. Russians in Sri Lanka are now compelled to catch a transit flight to return to Moscow. Also, Aeroflot has increased flights to the Maldives, depriving Sri Lanka of its three scheduled flights. The travellers are now getting their air tickets from Aeroflot, to fly to Velana International Airport in Malé, to leave for Russia. The loss Aeroflot made offering accommodation to stranded passengers and onward tickets has irked the Russian Federation immensely.

Weeratunga claims, there is international backing in the incident. The lawyers representing the leasing company located in Ireland rushed to detain the flight. The lawyers rushed to BIA, violating protocols, and made a call to the air traffic controller to halt the Aeroflot Airbus A330. The order by the Commercial Court should have been written and handed over the Registrar and it should not be halted by a phone call, Weeratunga said. If the Sri Lankan Government assured that they will not detain the aircraft, it has to be upheld, he said. The third party letter of assurance was sealed by former Foreign Ministry Secretary, Jayanath Colombage. 

On 3 June, the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation J.A. Liyanage was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Russian Foreign Ministry quoted that the Head of the diplomatic mission was protested in connection with the groundless decision of the judicial authorities of Sri Lanka to detain on 2 June at BIA an Aeroflot scheduled flight, which was preparing to fly to Moscow. “We urged the Sri Lankan side to resolve this problem as soon as possible in order to avoid its negative impact on traditionally friendly bilateral relations.”

A letter provided by the CAASL has also attracted controversy. Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL), Captain Themiya Abeywickrama provided a letter of assurance to Aeroflot handlers that their aircraft will not be detained in Colombo. However, he has no authority to give such assurance without the approval of the Foreign Ministry. It did not state which type of aircraft will not be detained, whether the aircraft is Russian-owned or leased.

Following this, the Russians sent another letter, seeking clarification whether Russian-registered aircraft will be detained, and the Foreign Ministry assured that they wouldn’t be. Aeroflot wanted reassurance due to the ongoing challenges they face with the West over the Ukraine War, according to Weeratunga. Notably, Russia had an intention to continue to have its tourists sent to Sri Lanka due to the bilateral ties Sri Lanka enjoys with the Russians.

Russia had imported coffee, tea, mate, and spices worth US$ 123.97 million in 2020 and apparel worth US$ 58.75 million in the same year and during the crisis they promised coal and fuel.

This is not the first time such a fracas has taken place between Sri Lanka and Russia. Russia had turned its back on Sri Lanka during the previous regime too, when Sri Lanka halted asbestos sheet imports from Russia. In no time, Russia said the tea they imported from Sri Lanka had beetles and refused to import. The crisis was resolved after we considered importing asbestos.

In a remarkable turn of events, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka D.E.W. Gunasekera alleged that there are hidden hands behind the detaining of the Russian Aeroflot aircraft and urged the Government to probe further, and not to pick sides in fear of diplomatic relations with India or the US being affected.

Ural Airlines incident

On 6 June, a (Russian) Ural Airlines aircraft failed to leave the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. According to Egyptian Media, the cancellation of flights and the delay of the aircraft were carried out “in connection with the contact of a foreign lessor with the Egyptian aviation authorities,” an Egyptian website dip.org.ua said.

Similar to what happened in Sri Lanka, the Egyptian website cited that “The lessor sent a request to the Egyptian aviation authorities to stop the plane, and Eurocontrol (European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation) did not issue a permit to fly over its territory until the plane is returned.” They also noted that part of the flight takes place over the territory of Cyprus – but moreover, earlier, two Ural Airlines planes returned safely to Russia. But another aircraft was unlucky. “It will be recalled that the Federal Air Transport Agency of Russia (Rosaviatsia) has officially recommended that Russian carriers cancel their flights abroad to avoid confiscation of aircraft by lessors. In addition, it is desirable to do so by 8 March.”

Russia knows it would face trouble overseas when its leased aircraft fly. One story of how some countries have tried to confiscate Russian aircraft was highlighted by Rosaviatsia, which said, planes may be banned from flying due to the termination of reinsurance contracts. It is obvious that the Government will solve this problem inside Russia, but with foreign flights everything is much more complicated. And so much so that Rosaviatsia ordered all Russian airlines to suspend international flights from 6 March.

Their statement further said: “In connection with the unfriendly decisions of a number of foreign countries on civil aviation of the Russian Federation, Russian airlines and passengers have become an instrument and hostage of the political struggle. Restrictive measures introduced, contrary to the provisions of international air law and the basic principles of the Chicago Convention, continue to increase in relation to civil aviation of the Russian Federation. In addition to restrictions on the use of airspace, foreign states participating in sanctions impose additional restrictions, which are expressed in the detention of aircraft of Russian airlines registered in foreign states and owned by foreign lessors.”

On 30 May, Russian Airbus and Boeing aircraft were banned from Chinese airspace. After the US and EU declared sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, Western lessors attempted to repossess aircraft leased to Russian airlines.

Obviously, the Russian Federation required assurances from Sri Lanka that their aircraft would not be detained, but one was, and to rectify the damage, some are encouraging government officials to visit Russia and patch things up.

These strange actions by a country with a literacy rate of over 95 per cent highlights the need for officials with a thorough knowledge of geopolitics and qualifications to be appointed to all positions. We’ve failed for the umpteenth time, and it’s serious.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan