Check-in for Putin

Frankfurt's partly state-owned airport operator Fraport has come under fire for its involvement in St. Petersburg Airport. Satellite images now show that Russian military aircraft also take off and land there. But the company and the state of Hesse, as the largest shareholder, are reluctant to back down.

Hesse's Finance Minister Michael Boddenberg (CDU) has so far found it difficult to withdraw. The state, which is governed by a black-green coalition, has a 30 percent stake in the Frankfurt airport operator Fraport, and the CDU/CSU politician is even chairman of the supervisory board there. Fraport, in turn, has held a 25 percent stake in St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport for several years. Since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, however, voices have been raised, not only in the opposition, urging Fraport to withdraw from Russia. But as I said, the minister is having a hard time with the topic of withdrawal.

When Boddenberg had to answer questions before the budget committee in the Hessian state parliament on May 4, 2022, and came under pressure, the minister made a statement that could have far-reaching consequences today - for the Hessian state government and for Fraport. An exit from the joint contracts with the other Pulkovo owners - including the sanctioned Russian state bank VTB - would only be possible, Boddenberg said, if the "airport were directly involved in warlike events". In that case, "force majeure" would be at play - Fraport might not have to continue fulfilling its contractual obligations in Pulkovo.

The airport is used for Russian war purposes - and the state of Hesse is involved

So far, however, there have only been vague indications that Pulkovo Airport is being used for military purposes. But no evidence that bombers, transports or fighter planes actually land at the airport, which is after all Russia's fourth largest. So far. New research by Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR now shows that Pulkovo has been used militarily by Russia since last year at the latest, possibly even in the war of aggression against Ukraine. This puts Boddenberg and the Hessian government on the defensive: especially since two aircraft that can be identified on satellite images of Pulkovo are attributed to the notorious Wagner mercenary force of Yevgeny Prigozhin of all people - and were later sanctioned by the United States.

On June 11, 2022, just weeks after Boddenberg's speech to the Budget Committee, an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft used Pulkovo for takeoff and landing.

The aircraft, with the designator RA-78835, was placed on the sanctions list by the U.S. Department of Justice in May 2023. Justification: The plane belonged to the 224th Flight Unit, a "state-owned enterprise that has been disengaged from Russia's Air Force to perform commercial cargo transportation" and "that has transported Wagner personnel and equipment to countries where Wagner is known to operate."

Satellite imagery shows another Wagner aircraft using the airport just weeks after the Il-76 visited Pulkovo.

This now sanctioned aircraft is clearly identifiable at Pulkovo airport - an Antonov An-124. Photos taken on July 12, 2022 show the aircraft with registration number RA-82014. In photos taken on July 12, 2022, the aircraft can be seen with registration number RA-82014.

The U.S. also lists it in the May 2023 sanctions catalog as "Property in Which 224th Flight Unit State Airlines Has an Interest" - that is, as one of the aircraft that flew for the Wagner forces. This type of aircraft was designed in the late 1970s as a large transport aircraft for the armed forces, and could gamely carry heavy trucks, as well as entire submarines or tracked armored vehicles.

In 2023, the RA-82014 was also seen flying over Syria and over Africa, countries where Wagner forces are stationed.

The U.S. and other countries accuse Wagner and its leader of serious war crimes in Ukraine, such as during the occupation of Bachmut, where mercenaries smashed a deserter's head with a sledgehammer and filmed themselves doing it. The force has also allegedly been involved in atrocities in Syria and Africa. In the Central African Republic, for example, the Russians are fighting alongside the troops of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra with all brutality against rebel groups. The Wagner people are also active in Mali and Libya.

So how can it be that a German corporation, which is also partly state-owned, continues to hold shares in an airport that is used by Russian mercenary troops for warlike purposes?

Hesse's state government and Fraport had a long time to gather information about aircraft movements at Pulkovo. On March 6, the Hessian FDP asked a small question in the state parliament: whether the state government had any knowledge that the St. Petersburg airport was also being used for military purposes with a view to the war in Ukraine? The answer came more than a month later and was as terse as it was dismissive: "No. Neither Fraport nor the state government have any new findings on this subject. The same applies to the Foreign Office, with which the Hessian Ministry of Finance has currently inquired again."

But this is obviously not the whole truth. In response to an inquiry from the SZ, the Foreign Office states that it was "in contact with the Hessian Ministry of Finance in April 2022 and March 2023 on the question of the use of Pulkovo Airport in connection with the Russian war against Ukraine." However, "the information transmitted is classified." In other words, apparently the ministry had intelligence information from partner services of the Federal Intelligence Service.

It looks as if Wiesbaden did not look that closely. For even on the day of the FDP's inquiry, a Tupolev Tu-22M3 took off from Pulkovo. A long-range bomber, which is normally equipped with Ch-22 or Ch-32 cruise missiles, as used by Russia in the war of aggression against Ukraine. A military blogger had proudly reported their arrival a day earlier on March 7 - an emergency landing due to bad weather, it was initially said. But retroactively, there is no evidence of this.

Satellite images confirm that the Tupolev did indeed stop at Pulkovo that day. Photos of the bomber from the day of its arrival show what clearly looks like two Ch cruise missiles mounted under the Tupolev.

Experts from Oryx, a platform specializing in defense analyses, confirmed to SZ, NDR and WDR after analyzing the images that two Ch-22 cruise missiles can be seen in the photos. Even if there is a lot to be said for it - whether and to what extent the machines mentioned were actually used in the Ukraine war cannot be proven by the pictures.

So could Fraport and the state government have detected with relatively simple means that the Russians were using Pulkovo for takeoffs and landings of military aircraft?

Getting out is not so easy, Fraport says. Sanction experts say the opposite

From the point of view of the opposition, the government and the company are now in need of explanation. "Minister Boddenberg has to ask himself how much more circumstantial evidence the black-green state government needs to put an end to its involvement in Pulkovo Airport," says Hesse's FDP politician Marion Schardt-Sauer. And asks why the state government did not itself request satellite images in the spring of 2022 to "find out about the actual use of the airport."

Fraport answers on request that the group is not aware that the airport operating company handles military flights in connection with ongoing war operations. It is not possible to withdraw from the project immediately. Pulkovo is a civil aviation airport. In principle, however, any civilian airport in the world could also be used for military purposes in a special case, the group said.

Perhaps all sides are just afraid that an exit from the airport operating company of Pulkovo would entail painful claims for damages by the Russians. In any case, sanctions experts agree that it would be legally possible to withdraw from the contract concluded under English law with the other owners, especially since Fraport has long since written off the investment internally in its balance sheet.

So it is better to suppress, keep quiet, sit it out - this has been going on for almost two years now. Ever since the SZ, WDR and NDR reported on the "Pandora Papers" and raised questions about the military use of Pulkovo for the first time. However, Minister Boddenberg still maintains that there is still no reliable evidence to support or even prove the use of Pulkovo Airport for Russian military operations in Ukraine. This assessment of the situation has not changed even after repeated contacts with the German Foreign Office. Fraport has no exit option. Is this really the case? But as I said, the man obviously has his problems with withdrawal.