Talks aimed at ending trade war fail with thousands of travellers visiting family and on business now facing arduous journeys.
Direct flights between Ukraine and Russia were grounded on Sunday, as mistrust between the two countries boiled over into a new trade war that could affect hundreds of thousands of people.
“I never thought it would come to this,” said 30-year-old Alexander Mikhaylin, from Moscow, after walking off the last Russian flight into Kiev’s Boryspil airport late on Saturday night.
“Of course it will make life more difficult,” the IT specialist said with a sigh. “These were the cheapest and most convenient tickets.”
Russia and Ukraine share both a long history and a fierce animosity, rekindled by months of winter 2013-14 protests that brought Petro Poroshenko, a strongly pro-western leader, to power.
Ukraine’s decision to escape Moscow’s orbit set off a bloody chain of events that included Russia’s March 2014 seizure of Crimea and the 18-month eastern separatist conflict that has killed at least 8,000 people.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, denies choreographing the eastern revolt in reprisal for the change of heart in Ukraine, which Moscow had originally seen as part of a new geopolitical bloc to rival the European Union and eventually Nato.
But Kiev and its western allies refuse to believe him because Putin had also at first denied suggestions that Russian forces had been dispatched to take over Crimea. He later admitted on Russian state television that the entire operation had been planned well in advance.
The veteran Kremlin leader’s tough approach to his western neighbour and seeming expansionist dreams launched a global trade war that saw Russia ban the import of most western food. Brussels and Washington’s own sanctions included freezing the foreign assets of close Putin allies and partial bans on investments in Russia’s vital energy industry.
The flight spat started with Poroshenko’s announcement on 16 September that Russian airlines would soon be barred from landing in – but not flying over – Ukraine because of Moscow’s refusal to hand back Crimea. Russia denounced the decision as “madness” before responding with similar measures this month.
A desperate round of negotiations between the two sides in Brussels on Friday ended without any immediate solution in sight. Russian authorities estimate that some 800,000 people flew between the two countries in the first eight months of the year.
Moscow also says that at least 70% are Ukrainians trying to visit Russian relatives and that it was Kiev’s main airline that was likely to be financially hurt the most by the air blockade. Travellers must now look into other less convenient, more expensive options including slow overnight train rides and flights via other countries on relatively good terms with both sides.
Ukrainians could for instance first travel west to Moldova before making the longer flight back across their own country to Russia. Other options include Belarus – its main airport in Minsk now stands largely empty because of the country’s poor relations with the west – as well as the former Soviet state of Georgia.
Travellers could also potentially use the three Baltic countries and their sleek new airports. But the tiny former Soviet nations are proud members of European Union’s Schengen free-travel zone. People without the required passport must stay cooped up – often for many hours – in the grim waiting areas because they cannot legally leave the airports.