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The insurance policies you’ve likely never heard of that protect companies doing business in Russia and Ukraine

July 12, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
aercap, russia, planes
The world’s largest owner of commercial aircraft, AerCap, lost 113 planes to Russia.
Courtesy of AerCap

CEOs worldwide are suddenly transfixed by a worry they didn’t have just last year: What kind of business insurance do they have in Ukraine and Russia?

It’s a timely question, and the answer could be costly. Billions of dollars are at stake, and the Ukraine conflict has already prompted a deep rethinking of risk management across industries.

A financial hit may, understandably, seem like a paltry concern amid the human carnage and misery caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But companies that do business in either country still have stakeholders to answer to, and many that have suffered economic losses are now discovering exactly what their insurance will and won’t cover.

In some cases, no one knows the answer. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin in March authorized the seizure of hundreds of commercial jets that Russian airlines leased from Western aircraft lessors. “This is just something that never was contemplated,” says Garrett Hanrahan, global head of aviation and space at the Marsh insurance brokerage. Far more seizures of Western property could lie ahead.

“The biggest thing we’re keeping an eye on is that the Russian government may appropriate the assets of Western companies—particularly those that have signaled their exit,” says Laura Burns, a political risk expert at the WTW insurance advisory firm. “That would be a monumental event in our industry.”

The unprecedented aviation breach exemplifies the uncertainties that companies operating in Russia may face. Just over 500 Western-built aircraft, plus associated equipment, are stuck in Russia, valued at an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion, though some estimates go up to $30 billion. Most of those planes are flown by Russian airlines but owned by Western aircraft leasing companies.

The world’s biggest aircraft lessor, Dublin-based AerCap, has already written off $2.7 billion, recognizing a “total loss” on the 113 planes it can’t get out of Russia, and has filed an insurance claim for about $3.5 billion. The company “will vigorously pursue all available remedies to recover our losses,” CEO Aengus Kelly said in a statement. His hawkish stance reflects the reality that AerCap’s insurers may not disburse $3.5 billion without tough negotiations, creating conflict between insurer and insured.

Insurance policies almost always include fine print, nuanced stipulations, and other lexical particulars, so selecting the right policy is crucial. Hanrahan notes, for example, that AerCap’s insurance claim doesn’t say Russia “confiscated” or “seized” Western-owned planes; it says Russia stole them. That’s because an aircraft owner’s coverage can include multiple types of policies. A “hull war” policy covers damage, destruction, or seizure of an aircraft even if caused by war or warlike events, but with a major caveat: “There are aggregate limits associated with the hull war market,” says Hanrahan. In any given year, hull war insurers will cover losses only up to a certain amount, and if ever a year looked likely to exceed the limit, 2022 is it. By contrast, “all risks” policies might not cover war-caused damage but do cover theft—and in that market there are no aggregate limits.

Insurers may rebut the claim that Russia stole the lessors’ planes, turning word choice into a highly debatable issue.

Companies across industries have suffered losses in Ukraine and Russia, and their ability to collect insurance payouts depends heavily on the types of policies they bought before the February invasion. If a company’s buildings, vehicles, or other property were destroyed in the fighting, regular property insurance won’t help. Those policies carry “very strong exclusions for war and warlike actions,” says Robert Gall, U.S. chief property claims officer at Marsh. While they’re referred to as war exclusions, they still apply even though Russia hasn’t officially declared war. These exclusions typically specify that property damage caused by invasion, insurrection, rebellion, revolution, and other similar events isn’t covered.

For protection against situations like the Ukraine invasion, companies need political risk insurance. Among the most widely used types are:

Political violence coverage. This policy covers property damage even in war zones. “Particularly in eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region, many, many clients have suffered a political violence loss,” says Burns.

Forced abandonment coverage. This policy is for scenarios in which there’s no property damage, but danger has become so great that a company must abandon its assets or business. In Ukraine, many companies in agribusiness and manufacturing are filing notices of such claims. Burns says it’s currently an even larger area of coverage than political violence coverage.

Contract frustration coverage. This policy covers conflict-related losses for companies without a physical presence in the region. For example, companies that have cross-border contracts with organizations in Ukraine or Russia may find they can’t send money in or out, or convert currency. Western sanctions on Russia, which prohibit actions that benefit Russian entities directly or indirectly, may render contracts worthless, making such a policy useful.

While not a form of political risk insurance, trade credit insurance is a close cousin of contract frustration coverage, insuring receivables from many customers when they can’t or won’t pay, rather than covering contracts with a single counterparty.

As always, it’s one thing to have an insurance policy and quite another to get a check from the insurer. Certain political violence claims can be settled quickly; if a building is destroyed, for example, satellite imagery can sometimes verify the damage even if no insurance adjuster can safely go there. Forced abandonment coverage typically requires a 180-day waiting period; if an asset’s owner can’t use the asset for 180 days, it’s considered abandoned, and the insurer can pay.

Stranded aircraft will likely be a different story. With companies filing massive claims and few precedents, negotiations could take years. “This is an insurance industry problem that needs to be solved,” says Hanrahan. “Otherwise, the only ones that are going to make money are the lawyers, because they’re probably looking at this as a smorgasbord. And they are not, shall we say, motivated to get a settlement early.” His concern: “the thought of this dragging on for 10 years.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has alerted CEOs and CFOs to new risks in a fast-changing world order. “This has been a giant wake-up call to the corporate community,” Burns says. Even companies that don’t operate in Ukraine or Russia are worried about the ripple effects—say, grain blockaded in Ukraine spiking bread prices in other countries and prompting uprisings that topple governments. Burns says some business leaders are thinking hard about an even more threatening possibility: “Is this a big dress rehearsal for a China-Taiwan situation?”

Insurance is boring until you need it. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is reminding business leaders that insurance exists because risks exist, and for global business, what happens in one corner of the world has far-reaching consequences in another.

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