Prized Russian Airliner Delivering COVID Supplies Seized By Canada to be Handed to Ukraine: Why An-124s Matter to Moscow

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on June 10 that his government would seize a Russian owned An-124 heavyweight cargo aircraft, and that Ottawa would move towards forfeiting the aircraft to Ukraine. The statement was made as Trudeau, whose government has been a leading supporter of the Ukrainian War effort since 2014, made a surprise visit to Kiev. Owned by the Russian air carrier Volga-Dnepr Airlines, the An-124 aircraft in question had been chartered by the Canadian government and landed in Toronto on February 27, 2022, carrying rapid tests for Covid-19 from China. Kept at Toronto Pearson Airport ever since, the aircraft registered as RA-82078 is not expected to be delivered to Ukraine until after the conclusion of current hostilities. The seizure represents the latest by Western countries targeting Russian assets, with assets frozen by some estimates amounting to over $600 billion from both the state and from private Russian firms and citizens. The bulk of these assets are expected to be appropriated by Western states, which will help cover the costs of the Western world’s tremendous investments in the Ukrainian war effort. The move to seize assets is far from unprecedented, with Western countries previously having targeted North Korean and Iranian assets which have been seized, sold and the funds appropriated by Western governments, with similar measures targeting Chinese international shipping and assets also having been widely advocated for in Europe and the United States should relations further deteriorate. Canada has consistently led the Western world both in its willingness to impose sanctions and in its moves to seize property from firms and governments considered Western adversaries. 

The An-124 is a highly prized asset for Russia and represents by far the heaviest aircraft in the country’s fleet. Volga-Dnepr, Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines, and the United Arab Emirates’ Maximus Air Cargo, are the only civil operators, while the Russian Air Force relies heavily on the aircraft as a larger complement to the lighter but more widely used Il-76. While the Il-76 is produced domestically in Russia, after factories were moved there from Uzbekistan where they had been built in the Soviet era, the An-124 was produced in Ukraine during the Soviet era which has been a key impediment to further acquisitions. Although Russia and Ukraine were previously jointly developing a successor aircraft to enter service around 2020, the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014 and the country’s pivot towards close alignment with NATO ended the program and led Russian to pursue a successor independently. Although Ukraine inherited one of the world’s leading aviation industries when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, very limited research and development or technological advances in the following three decades, and a negligible budget for domestic manufacturing, led this to quickly wither, with decline accelerating after Russian funding was cut off from 2014.