Russian airlines have received millions of US-made aircraft parts since the invasion of Ukraine
Over $14.4 million worth of US-made aircraft parts illegally entered Russia in 2022.
One scheme involved two Russian nationals allegedly shipping Boeing and Airbus parts via places like Florida and China.
The strategy was a way to circumvent sanctions imposed by Europe and the US after the invasion of Ukraine.
Millions of dollars worth of aircraft parts entered Russia in 2022 despite Western sanctions preventing exports — suggesting the strategy isn't as bulletproof as governments had hoped.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the US has worked with 40 countries to impose crippling sanctions against Russia as a way to paralyze its economy and punish President Vladimir Putin.
The aviation sector was expected to take a big hit as Russian carriers — including Rossiya Airlines, Aeroflot, Ural Airlines, S7 Airlines, Utair Aviation, and Pobeda Airlines — mostly fly Boeing and Airbus planes.
The restrictions prevent Western planemakers from sending plane parts to Russia, forcing Russian operators to turn to seedier methods, including "cannibalizing" their own aircraft and buying from India and China.
Despite the efforts, $14.4 million worth of US-made parts were smuggled into Russia in 2022, according to customs data obtained by The New York Times. About $9 million worth were specifically Boeing parts, though the planemaker told the outlet that it has not done business with Russia since the sanctions.
One of these illegal schemes was recently unveiled with the arrest of Russian business partners Oleg Patsulya and Vasilii Besedin in Arizona on Thursday.
The two were charged with money laundering and violating US export laws after allegedly helping Russia get much-needed parts for its airline fleets, which has been ongoing since August 2022.
According to a criminal complaint filed in the US District Court Friday, the pair circumvented sanctions by purchasing parts from suppliers and re-selling them to Russian airlines for a profit — the money then spent to further the business, as well as purchase high-dollar items, like a 2023 BMW 740i luxury car which cost more than $130,000.
The parts were shipped via countries such as Turkey, China, and the Maldives, though some were also delivered directly from the US and Europe, per the filing.
Components bought and resold included everything from cheap bolts and nuts to an expensive Boeing 737 brake system sold to the Russian men for $70,000, according to the filing.
Lawyers for both defendants did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
With the influx of parts, Russian carriers have been able to better maintain their fleets — a reality that was not initially anticipated by experts, Bloomberg reported.
According to Cirium data collected by the outlet, Russian airlines are currently operating 467 Boeing and Airbus planes — down from 544 one year ago.
Many of the aircraft were leased internationally, but Russia was able to maintain its grip by refusing to return the jets after the imposed sanctions. The Kremlin also encouraged its airlines to re-register the planes in Russia.
However, airlines are still facing supply issues despite the black market deals. According to investigative Russian outlet Proekt, Russian flag carrier Aeroflot told its crew members not to report aircraft malfunctions — meaning some planes are departing with equipment issues.
Even so, Russian airlines have scheduled over 10,000 flights between Russia and Central Asia in May, per the NYT.
Meanwhile, around 1,100 daily domestic flights are currently being operated by Russian carriers — representing a 15% decline since last year. According to Bloomberg, this is less than what governments expected after the sanctions.
"Clearly the sanctions didn't work as the West thought they would, and the global aviation industry is a lot leakier than anyone thought," Richard Aboulafia, managing director of aviation consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory, told Bloomberg. "Yes, safety will deteriorate the longer these sanctions go on, but it's clearly not going to bring connectivity within Russia and from Russia to a grinding halt."
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