MOSCOW — U.S. ballet dancer Julian Mackay and his brother Nicholas were settling into their seats on board Aeroflot Flight SU102 from Moscow to New York on April 3 when the cabin crew made an unexpected announcement: The flight was canceled.

The brothers, who both live in Russia, were desperate to reach their dying father and had been trying to leave for weeks before managing to get tickets for the flight, which the U.S. embassy had warned could be the last one of the month.

"It's chaos, people are yelling and screaming at flight attendants …" said Nicholas in a video posted to Julian's Instagram account, as passengers vented their fury in the aisles behind them.

It soon became clear that they were not alone: more than 100 Russian citizens were left marooned in New York after the corresponding flight was also pulled, and flights to Russia from Istanbul and the Maldives were canceled too.

Aeroflot later issued a statement announcing that the flight had been grounded "following a decision by Russian aviation authorities to suspend all permits previously granted to carriers for charter flights to repatriate Russian and C.I.S. citizens."

As the Kommersant business daily reported, the reason was a government decision to suspend all flights in and out of Russia while Moscow reorganizes its repatriation strategy in light of the coronavirus crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said that the halt was necessary in order to understand exactly how many citizens required repatriation, their location and their identity.

Yet almost an entire day had passed before this became clear, with embassies (whose citizens were unable to leave Russia due to the cancelation of flights) and journalists left in the dark as they made frantic calls to government agencies. When officials did actually pick up the phone they either refused to discuss the situation or admitted that they themselves had no idea what was going on.

The U.S. State Department has now announced that it will provide a special charter flight on April 9 for its citizens still in Russia following the cancelations. Meanwhile, more than 30,000 Russian citizens are still stranded abroad, many of whom say their funds are dwindling.

The confusion over repatriation is symbolic of Russia's haphazard approach to dealing with the outbreak so far.

A Kommersant government source told the paper that the suspension was a temporary measure and was intended to last only "until the creation of certain special conditions."

Indeed, on Monday, April 6 the Foreign Ministry announced that it was relaunching its repatriation program with two flights from Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh, to be followed on April 7 by two flights from Bangkok. But the confusion over repatriation is symbolic of Russia's haphazard approach to dealing with the outbreak so far, despite having had plenty of time to formulate a response.

Mixed messages

For a long time the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Russia were low, allowing the Kremlin to indulge in soft power stunts such as sending medical aid to Italy, while state media peddled conspiracy theories and mocked Europe's struggles to cope with the outbreak.

Now, however, with the official number of those infected in Russia at over 7,000 and steadily rising, the government is seeking to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. Yet while the country is now effectively under a lockdown until the end of April, President Vladimir Putin has failed to declare a state of emergency, instead describing the measures as a "non-working" period.

These mixed messages are hampering efforts to limit the spread of infection, with many people continuing to ignore social distancing recommendations. The situation illustrates the problems Russian officials face, as they attempt to implement a coherent strategy to fight the virus while keeping imported infections under control.

Citizens returning from abroad have given the Kremlin another headache, with almost every day bringing a fresh story of passengers slipping out of airports on arrival in Russia in order to avoid being placed into quarantine. In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, police had to track down 12 "runaways" who disappeared after returning on a flight from Thailand on April 2.

Calling the Motherland

According to the foreign ministry, the vast majority of Russian citizens who have expressed a desire to return home are in Thailand — around 19,000 in total. Kommersant writes that while some of these are holidaymakers, many live in Thailand, making use of the relatively liberal visa regime, but have decided to return to Russia in light of the circumstances. There are also around 5,000 Russian nationals in India, and another 5,000 in Indonesia, mainly in Bali.

There is little sympathy in some quarters for the plight of stranded Russians.

Yevgeniya Starovoit, who flew to Australia with her husband in early March, is stuck in Melbourne. "To begin with we thought that we were the only ones here, but at the consulate they told us that around 500 Russians wanted to leave Australia and another 150 wanted to leave New Zealand," she told Kommersant. They had return tickets for April 6 via Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways, but on March 24 the company sent them an email informing them that the flight had been cancelled.

Russia has allocated 500 million rubles ($6.6 million) for temporary accommodation for citizens who are unable to return home, and says applicants need to sign up on a special online government register, though it is unclear how they will be able to access these funds or how people will be able to prove they need them.

However, there is little sympathy in some quarters for the plight of stranded Russians. Writing for Ria Novosti on April 6, Irina Alksnis echoed the thoughts of some online commentators when she accused many Russians stuck in limbo of "flagrant irresponsibility."

"Some — who live permanently abroad — hoped that this would blow over, and sat tight until the moment when they needed emergency evacuation," she wrote. "Others left Russia for vacations in March (all the way up to the 20th and beyond!), when an epidemic was already raging in the world, and states were closing their borders one after another. What all these people were thinking, one can only guess."


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