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Ukrainian 'Hero' Pilot In Social-Media Squall Over Facebook Photos Of Russia's Lavrov

Ukrainian commercial pilot Oleksandr Akopov
Ukrainian commercial pilot Oleksandr Akopov

Bad blood has seeped into almost every facet of relations between Kyiv and Moscow since Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Now that enmity has ensnared a Ukrainian commercial airline pilot praised as a hero for safely landing a packed plane after massive hailstones smashed the cockpit windshield.

The furor erupted days after the July 27 incident at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport when social-media users noticed that the pilot, Oleksandr Akopov, had prominently placed photographs of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on his Facebook profile.

Some Facebook users accused Akopov of loyalties to Russia, which Kyiv and the West say has backed separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and personnel in a war against government forces that has killed more than 10,000 since April 2014. Moscow denies the accusations.

“I don’t know about you, but seeing this completely changes my attitude to this ‘hero.’ Pardon me. You can stone me, but I refuse to budge on my principles when it comes to Russian aggression,” Facebook user Sergei Naumovich wrote in a hotly discussed July 29 post.

Some social-media users ramped up the criticism after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he had granted a state award for courage to Akopov,
who landed the Airbus A320-200 -- operated by Turkish airline AtlasGlobal -- together with co-pilot Samer Salim while using the side windows instead of the damaged windshield.

Ukrainian journalist Alyona Lunkova accused authorities of exploiting Akopov's heroism for political purposes while turning a blind eye to what she alleged were his pro-Russian views.

Lunkova later wrote on Facebook that she had been threatened by another user after her post, publishing a screenshot of the message as evidence.

Akopov, who says he was born near Kyiv and lived in the eastern city of Donetsk before fleeing as the war there heated up, found many supporters in the social-media dustup as well, including among Ukrainian officials.

In a July 30 Facebook post, Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan likened Akopov to U.S. pilot Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger, who garnered worldwide fame after he made a successful emergency landing of a US Airways flight on the Hudson River off Manhattan in 2009. The "miracle on the Hudson" incident spawned books, documentaries, and a biopic.

Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Vladimir Omelyan (file photo)
Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Vladimir Omelyan (file photo)

"I can say without a doubt that his actions were exemplary, and that the skill he demonstrated was on par with what we saw in the 'Miracle on the Hudson,'" Omelyan wrote.

"Regarding Lavrov and the usual screams of 'betrayal,' -- calm down. Mr. Akopov is a Ukrainian citizen," Omelyan added.

Please Come To Moscow

Moscow, meanwhile, has seized on the stir as evidence of what it frequently portrays as a pathological hatred of Russia in Ukraine following the 2014 ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, that preceded Russia's Crimea land-grab and the war in the east.

Late on July 31, the Russian Foreign Ministry appealed to Akopov in a Facebook post, saying it would "be happy" to welcome him in Russia “if you continue to face criticism in your homeland.”

Russian state television, meanwhile, said Akopov had been swept up in a "wave of anti-Russian hysteria," and a senior lawmaker from President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party said Moscow could fast-track Russian citizenship for Akopov under a new law simplifying the procedure for Ukrainians.

Akopov, for his part, finally gave his take on the controversy -- and an explanation of the Lavrov images -- in an interview with the Russian-language Ukrainian news portal published July 31.

The pilot said that he had used the collage of three images -- two of the Russian foreign minister and one of himself that was taken by a crew member -- "for no other reason than I look like Lavrov."

A Facebook post by Ukrainian pilot Oleksandr Akopov (bottom left) with with pictures of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (top and bottom right)
A Facebook post by Ukrainian pilot Oleksandr Akopov (bottom left) with with pictures of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (top and bottom right)

Akopov declined to go into details about his opinions on the war in eastern Ukraine but said he is "very worried" about the conflict, which drags on despite an internationally brokered 2015 peace deal. He added that he does have "sympathies toward Russia."

“Sympathy toward Russian hockey. And toward Ukrainian soccer. But I live and work in Ukraine. There’s no point in accusing me of separatism," he told

'You Can’t Tape Every Mouth Shut'

Akopov said he has been flying for three decades and for AtlasGlobal since the war in eastern Ukraine broke out.

The Cyprus-bound plane that Akopov captained was carrying 121 passengers and six crew members when it left Istanbul on July 27.

It reached 1,219 meters before being hit by a barrage of hail, causing damage to the windshield and nose that prompted Akopov's decision to return to the airport, AtlasGlobal said in a statement.

In video footage taken inside the cabin, passengers can be heard screaming and crying during the plane’s short flight. Other footage of the landing shows the plane slightly tilted just before it hits the runway as airport employers can be heard imploring the plane not to crash.

WATCH: Oleksandr Akopov's Emergency Landing In Istanbul

In the AtlasGlobal statement reported by Turkish media, Akopov explained that they used the angled approach in order to see the runway from the side window during the landing.

Akopov was nonchalant in a television interview after the incident, telling a Ukrainian channel: "You know, I’ve been flying for 31 years. Did you see how the plane landed? It was fine. The passengers are alive."

He told that he was aware of the online controversy over the Lavrov photographs, calling it "unpleasant, of course."

"But you can’t tape every mouth shut. These are the times we’re living in," Akopov was quoted as saying.

Asked about his telephone call with Poroshenko, Akopov declined to go into detail about a "private" conversation, but he said the Ukrainian president "didn’t say anything about the photo of Lavrov."

"People at that level don’t discuss -- pardon the expression -- such baloney," he said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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