U.S. Targets Russian Cargo Airline Aviastar Over Sanctions Violations

The company operated freighter aircraft under contract to DHL Express, Alibaba.

The U.S. government on Thursday took enforcement action against Russian cargo airline Aviastar-TU for violating export control regulations imposed under sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), part of the Commerce Department, blocked exports to Aviastar following what it called “ongoing violations” of new U.S. licensing requirements for U.S.-origin aircraft. The primary accusation is that Aviastar continued to conduct international flights without obtaining a license. 

“[Aviastar] can’t participate in any way in any transaction that involves any commodity, technology or software that is subject to U.S. export regulations.”

Melissa Mannino, international trade and security attorney at Baker Hostetler

Aviastar operates a fleet of Boeing 757-200s and Tupolov Tu-204s, a Russian-made medium-to-long-range, twin-engine narrowbody aircraft similar to the 757. Customers include DHL Express, Alibaba’s logistics arm Cainiao, and U.K.-based air charter broker Chapman Freeborn, according to Aviastar’s website and internet posts by aircraft spotters. Aviastar’s aircraft operated for DHL are dressed with the DHL logo and yellow paint scheme. 

DHL, Cainiao, and Chapman Freeborn did not respond to messages seeking clarification on whether, and when, they terminated relations with Aviastar.

“Airlift capacity is essential for military success and economic prosperity, and that is why we targeted Russia’s aerospace sector in response to its brutal invasion of Ukraine,” said Alan Estevez, undersecretary of commerce for industry and security. “Actions like today’s Temporary Denial Order demonstrate that BIS’s export enforcement is working hard to ensure that our new controls have their intended effect: To severely degrade and diminish Russia’s capacity to quickly move people, cargo, and weapons against Ukraine.” 

Why This Matters

The agency on March 2 essentially required any aircraft registered, owned, or controlled by Russia or a Russian national to obtain an export license for any international flight. That means any aircraft with more than 25 percent content from the U.S. is now subject to export administration regulations (EARs) governing dual-use items—goods that are primarily for commercial use but have military applications. The rules even apply to domestic Russian flights if the aircraft was “re-exported”—flown back—to Russia after March 2.

“Before, you could fly a Boeing to Russia with no license required,” said Melissa Mannino, an international trade and security attorney at Baker Hostetler. The airline now goes on the Denied Persons List, “which is the most severe export sanction you can have.”

No item subject to the EAR can go to the Russian company, whether or not it is intended for the actual airplane cited as under the export controls. 

“They can’t participate in any way in any transaction that involves any commodity, technology or software that is subject to U.S. export regulations,” Mannino explained.

The BIS, on April 7, similarly denied any trade with three other Russian airlines—flag carrier Aeroflot, Azur Air, and UTair—for operating aircraft subject to U.S. export controls without authorization. 

Last month, the agency identified 85 Russian aircraft it said flew back to Russia in violation of the sanctions and put entities on notice that if they service or support the flights, through refueling, maintenance, or other assistance, they are subject to enforcement action too for aiding the violation. The list included five Boeing 757-200 cargo aircraft operated by Aviastar. 

“Today’s action reflects the Commerce Department’s commitment to enforce our laws vigorously against those who violate them,” said Matthew Axelrod, assistant secretary of commerce for export enforcement. “Importantly, this order will hinder Aviastar’s ability to deliver military cargo and dangerous goods to Russia at a time when Russia is waging an unprovoked war of aggression against the people of Ukraine.”

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