Russian airline Volga-Dniepr announced Wednesday it will stop providing cargo planes to NATO at the end of the year, dealing a blow to the transatlantic alliance and France in particular which rely heavily on its aircraft.
“We have been gradually withdrawing from the military logistics transportation market, in due compliance with our previous commitments. The Group will not participate in the tender process initiated by NATO in its existing configuration,” Volga-Dniepr said in a statement.
Relations between Moscow and NATO have become increasingly strained.
Volga-Dniepr, a world leader in the movement of oversize and heavy air cargo, said the reason for the break with NATO was that the group “is focused on the growth of its business in the civil commercial sector and continuing to extend the scope of its niche products.”
The decision means the Russian carrier will not attempt to extend its contract for the provision of its Antonov An-124s to ten NATO armies, a project called the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) that also supports European Union operations.
Under the deal, Volga-Dniepr provided two Antonov An-124-100 aircraft on charter, two more on six days’ notice and another two on nine days’ notice.
That contract, which had been renewed each year since 2006, will now lapse at the end of 2018.
NATO responded with its own statement, saying it had been informed of the decision by Volga-Dniepr and that it is working with the nations affected “to explore options to meet their future airlift requirement from January 2019 onward.”
The ten NATO nations involved in the SALIS deal are Germany, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The withdrawal of Volga-Dniepr will be a particular problem for France due to delays in the delivery of, and technical and budget problems with, European aviation giant Airbus’ new A400M military transporter which has left it very dependent on the An-124s for overseas missions, notably in Africa’s Sahel region.
A March 2017 French parliamentary report highlighted this “very heavy dependence” on Russian and Ukrainian military transport planes.
NATO says An-124s have also been used by members to transport equipment to and from Afghanistan, deliver aid to the victims of the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and airlift African Union peacekeepers in and out of Darfur.
The An-124, developed in Ukraine in the Soviet era, can carry up to 120,000 kg (264,500 lb), a significantly larger capacity than the A400M’s 37,000 kg (81,600 lb).
With reporting from AFP