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‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” Vladimir Lenin had once observed. This holds true for the recent Russia-Ukraine war. The invasion of Ukrraine by Russia on 24 February, 2022 has shifted global politics. It has brought ‘war’ to Eastern Europe for the first time since 1945. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have reignited the cold war.
The West has imposed strict sanctions on Russia. A total of 33 countries including the US, Canada and members of the European Union have closed their air space to Russian flights. Switzerland, a nation known for its neutrality in world politics, agreed to join the air ban on Russian flights. In response, Russia has closed its air space to Canadian, American and and EU-based airlines. This closure of air space has altered air navigation across the globe overnight.
Russian space is vital for trans-Asiatic and Atlantic flights. On 1 March 2022, a United Airlines flight from New York City to New Delhi needed to take a long detour through the North Atlantic Ocean, Europe and the Middle East before entering India. Similarly, European airlines are impacted by the changes in flight paths. A Finair flight is now taking around 9 hours to reach New Delhi from Helsinki, by avoiding the Russian air space. It used to complete the same journey within 6 hours and 15 minutes before the air space closures. This increased time of journey also translates into more fuel consumption by the aircraft and more emissions of CO2.
According to a 2018 report, global commercial operations emitted 918 million tonnes of CO2 that year. The air space ban will make the fight against climate change all the more difficult due to these higher emissions. During the US-USSR cold war days, the closures of air spaces were a normal occurance. The town of Anchorage, in Alaska, used to be the popular stopping and refuelling point for long haul, international flights.
It took the implementation of the open economic policy, popularly known as Glasnost, by the then USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to open up the long closed ‘iron curtain’ over Russian skies. The permission to use Russian air space made trans-Atlantic flights less time consuming and more pocket friendly. The situation is favourable for Asian air lines.
According to a report by VariFlight, Chinese flights to Europe are facing no impact. This will, over time, reflect on the economy of flight management. More flight time can be translated to higher cost per passenger. The current sanctions on Russian flights can have a dual effect. They will impact the economies of the western nations as much as it will hurt Russia and facilitate the dominance of Asian flight operators from China.
The Russia-Ukraine war has widened the West-East divide and the world is on the verge of reinstating the old rusty USSR ‘iron curtain’. The start of the process is in the skies. International organizations should intervene to manage the Russia-Ukraine crisis through moderated dialogues between the nations. If kept unchecked, sanctions alone will not be enough to minimize the loss of human lives, and the costs – including environmental – of this senseless war.
(The writers are, respectively, Professor and Dean, at Jindal School of Environment & Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana, India.)