Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in an interview released on July 21 that the airline could resume a small number of flights to Ukraine as early as the end of 2023 should Ukraine open part of its airspace for commercial aviation. The executive revealed that the Ireland-based airline was weighing two options for resuming business in Ukraine—the first being “the war finishes, and everything reopens in one day or two” and the second “more likely” situation in which the airline resumes a “small number of flights” during wartime at the year’s end.
Despite this chatter, Western regulators should prohibit such wartime flights to avoid risks to the lives and safety of those onboard and ensure commercial aviation does not become a convenient stairway for those seeking to escalate the Russia-Ukraine War.
O’Leary is not alone in expecting, if not hoping for, the partial wartime reopening of Ukrainian airspace to commercial flights, despite the air traffic management body Eurocontrol forecasting that the closure of Ukraine’s airspace to civilian aircraft will persist until 2029.
In April 2023, France’s Minister for Transport Clément Beaune told European Pravda that Ukrainian authorities were “working hard” to open airspace for civilian planes either “fully” or “partially.” “As I understand it, Ukraine already has certain considerations for this event, and Kyiv is working hard on it. However, of course, the main issue is still security,” Beaune said.
From a purely symbolic standpoint—holding off the debate on feasibility and risk—the resumption of flights to Ukraine might allow Ukraine and its supporters to celebrate a victory, making claims that Russia’s ability to destroy Ukrainian latent power and infrastructure is waning due to the supposed ‘bravery’ of the Ukrainian armed forces. As such, a resumption of flights could temporarily boost Ukrainian morale. However, the risk and feasibility of such a move indicate that it is dangerous and should only be encouraged once the war ends.
The leading threat vector airlines will encounter during wartime flights to Ukraine is Russia’s anti-air capabilities. Consequently, O’Leary’s comparison of the risks of flying to Israel falls apart when one realizes that Russia’s ground-to-air and air-to-air attack capabilities are far superior to those of Palestinian militants.
The weaponry currently available to Palestinians can only threaten aircraft when parked at an airport or flying at low altitudes. These include rocket-propelled grenades, artillery rockets, and Strela-2 shoulder-launched anti-air missiles. Conversely, Russia enjoys a full spectrum of sophisticated anti-air capabilities beyond unguided rocket artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, and shoulder-launched missiles.
In range and speed, Russian air defense systems, many intended for ballistic and cruise missiles, can conveniently down civilian aircraft, including those flying at cruising altitude. As such, they would make civilian airplanes easy targets.
The 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Donbas by a Buk surface-to-air missile is a notable warning to any airline that seeks to send airplanes into a warzone where Russia and Ukraine are engaged in combat. With ranges of 250-400 km, Russian S-400s from Belarus can down any approaching aircraft in Western Ukraine, rendering major and minor airports in cities such as Lvov, Ternopol, Vinnytsia, and Ivano-Frankivsk dangerous for civilian aviation. Buk and S-300s can assist Russian air defenses, although their ranges are lesser than the S-400s. Other parts of Ukraine, including Kiev, are also unsafe for civilian aircraft, considering their proximity to Belarus, Crimea, or Russia and its newly annexed regions in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk.
Russian air-to-air capabilities are no less dangerous. The Russian air force can fire long-range air-to-air missiles from a distance, notably the Vympel R-37 missile. While Ukrainian fighter jets could dodge this missile, according to reporting from Forbes, civilian jetliners lack the hardware for jetfighter-like evasive maneuvers.
One might be tempted to point to the Patriot missile systems in Kiev and their relative success at intercepting Shahed drones and cruise missiles. However, the relative success of Ukrainian air defense is not a reliable indicator of civilian aviation safety.
Air defense system interceptors risk producing shrapnel when they strike missiles near jetliners—the shrapnel either from the interceptor or the intercepted projectile. Once shrapnel shreds the fuselage or enters the engine, it can severely damage a civilian plane, possibly causing destruction sufficient to down it.
Aside from the risk of shrapnel, Russian strikes on Odessa demonstrate that successful interceptions in Kiev are no reason for celebration—Russia can still develop and deploy missiles that evade air defenses and deliver immense destruction.
Furthermore, the threat of airstrikes on airbases and runways, especially those shared by Ukraine’s air force, renders the authorization of civilian flights to Ukraine a negligent and reckless move for regulators and airlines.
Passengers choosing to fly on such wartime flights to Ukraine will be making a suicidal gamble. The other risk of allowing such wartime flights is that they could catalyze military escalation.
Though Ukrainian officials and their supporters can present civilian airplanes as civilian transport, such flights can become, in essence, “dual use” when used to ferry Ukrainian officials, male conscripts, soldiers, and Western intelligence personnel in and out of Ukraine. Civilian passengers would become human shields for strategically important cargo onboard such flights.
Russia could briefly tolerate such flights to avoid escalation. However, analysts should not mockingly dismiss Russian restraint as a weakness. If Russia feels pressed too hard with the possible exploitation of civilian transport for military purposes, it might not be long before the military strikes a commercial plane.
The sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, which catalyzed U.S. entry into World War I, is a helpful analogy to understand the risks here. The German attack on the ocean liner killed 1,198 people, including 128 American citizens—a fact British propaganda did not fail to emphasize. However, Lusitania was no harmless vessel. Like several other civilian vessels at the time, it was carrying war munitions headed for Britain, arguably a legitimate military target. This inconvenient fact, nonetheless, failed to deter war advocates pushing the United States to intervene in Europe.
As Western countries increasingly edge toward the escalation cliff, such flights could ferry clandestine war cargo, Ukrainian officials, western intelligence officers, and soldiers to Ukraine, making them an attractive target for Russian forces. The presence of civilians onboard, including possibly citizens of other NATO countries, will make the aircraft’s downing a tripwire that pro-escalation activists and politicians in Ukraine and the West might exploit to pressure NATO into further escalation with Russia.
Citizens of Western and European countries, airport workers, and regulators must play a crucial role in resisting the implementation of wartime civilian flights to Ukraine, even if their governments give tacit consent.
In his interview with Interfax-Ukraine, O’Leary said that whether flights to Ukraine would resume is contingent on European regulators deeming any total or partial opening of Ukrainian airspace safe for European regulators. This gives one hope that reason—not premature celebration over the supposed “successes of Ukrainian resistance” or escalatory brinkmanship—will triumph in the regulators’ decisionmaking calculus.
Andrew Jose is a freelance news reporter and analyst covering politics, foreign policy, and transnational security. He has written for several notable publications, including The Jewish News Syndicate, Stacker, The Daily Caller, and The Western Journal. Andrew is a Master of Arts in Security Policy Studies candidate at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. He received his Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.