After the invasion of Ukraine, more than 3000 sanctions have been imposed on Russia. These sanctions were primarily employed to show solidarity with Ukraine, undermining the Russian economy and its ability to finance the war, and making the invasion more costly. To this end, a wide range of countries - including but not limited to the EU, the UK, US, Switzerland, Japan, and others, put a united front with sanctions against Russia. However, there is one single major exception that had to be among those ranks. Despite being a NATO member and a country to lose much when the northern Black Sea falls under Russian domination, Turkey not only did not put any unilateral sanctions against Russia but also publicly announced that it would welcome the Russian oligarchs and their assets in the country, thus creating a loophole for Russians.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pointed out Turkey’s position on sanctions at the very beginning of the war:
“We examine every sanction one by one. What the impact will be on our economy and energy supply security, including closing airspace. We did not participate in the sanctions in principle; we are not inclined to participate. Our counterparts ask: "Will you participate in these sanctions?" We told them how the current sanctions will affect our economy and how they can affect our sectors. There was no demand from or pressure on Turkey in this regard; it was just a question."
As Çavuşoğlu implies, one of the primary concerns of Turkey is the devastating impact that sanctions will inflict on its economy. The pandemic has exacerbated Turkey’s already precarious economic situation, with an official inflation rate of 54%, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. Turkish central bank's current net international reserves amount to $18 billion. However, the net reserves are estimated to be less than -$40 billion when swap agreements are excluded.
Turkey had high hopes that this summer's tourism season would mitigate this outlook. Last year, Russians and Ukrainians constituted over a quarter of all tourists who arrived in Turkey, where tourism represented 10 per cent of GDP a couple of years ago. The hopes were dashed with the war and closing its airspace to Russians would be the final nail in the coffin of Turkish tourism. For those who remember how Turkey’s economy was affected due to Russia’s unilateral sanctions against Turkey on tourism and food exports after a Turkish F16 shot down a Russian military aircraft on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015 when Turkey’s economic prospects were much better, it is evident that Turkey’s current economic malaise cannot sustain another blow from Russia. Besides, Turkey is highly dependent on Russia for about 50% of its gas needs, with no real alternatives in the near term. This winter, many factories in Western Turkey had to cut off production because of the scarcity of natural gas for several days.
On the other hand, Turkey’s refusal to impose sanctions against Russia cannot be simply explained by economic reasons. The junior partner of Turkey’s government coalition, namely the Eurasianists, firmly argues that Turkey must ditch its alliance with NATO and should join the “anti-imperialist” camp led by Russia. They vehemently espouse an anti-Western approach to foreign policy and they are very suspicious, to say the least, of anything that has the backing of the US and NATO. While they are the junior partner, they have an outsized influence in determining Turkey’s foreign and security policy course. Since the AKP somehow adapts their approach, Turkey follows a close relationship with Russia to the detriment of its security and economic interests. For instance, after Turkey acquired an S-400 air defense system from Russia despite several warnings from NATO and the US, it was removed from the F-35 joint strike fighter program and it lost its production work on the jet. It is estimated that this removal cost Turkey’s economy around $9 billion. Moreover, Turkey now can neither purchase the state of art F35s nor modernize its ageing F16 fleet due to US sanctions related to the purchase of S-400 air defense systems.
Regarding the war in Ukraine, the Eurasianists in Turkey hold their pro-Russian position and they blame NATO for provoking a war with its activities in the sphere of influence of Russia. Likewise, they assert that the Ukrainian Government is a puppet of the US, and accordingly, Turkey should support Russia in its struggle against the Western camp. To this end, they try to shape the decision-making process in Ankara in Moscow’s favor and shuttle between Turkey and Russia. It seems that the AKP government is trying to strike a balance between the pressure from the West and these Euroasianists in Turkey. This probably is one of the reasons why Turkey does not take a firm position against Russia besides some symbolic gestures such as voting against Russia in the UN. One can even question if Ankara uses its economic malaise to deflect the pressure from the West as it has adopted an approach that is not hostile to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Retaliation from Russia
Lastly, Ankara is also worried about possible countermeasures from Russia. Turkey and Russia have supported different warring parties in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. While Ankara and Moscow have seemingly reached a temporary agreement about preserving the status quo in these countries, Turkey needs ongoing cooperation and dialogue with Russia to consolidate its gains. Otherwise, retaliation from Russia on the field can be costly and bloody for Ankara. For example, after a long quiet period in Syria, the Syrian forces attacked a Turkish armored vehicle with a guided missile during a routine patrol last week, injuring three Turkish soldiers. In this context, President Erdoğan said:
“We have stated many times that we will not participate in the sanctions against Russia and mentioned the reasons for this. While expressing our reaction to Russia's military activities, we also attach importance to maintaining our dialogue. This dialogue is important and necessary not only in Ukraine but also in many geographies that are closely related to us, such as Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus.”
To conclude, the sanctions may not, in themselves, stop the war in Ukraine, but they might well prompt Russian leadership to recalculate their willingness to continue the war and strengthen Ukraine’s hand. In this vein, Turkey claims to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but its support to Ukraine is halfhearted at best. On the other hand, Ankara does its best not to anger Russia due to a worsening economic crisis in Turkey, the prominence of the Eurasianist ideology within its government coalition and possible retaliation from Russia. Moscow, in return, takes notice of Turkey’s policy in Ukraine. Obviously, the fact that Turkey was Putin’s second choice after Belarus to host the peace negotiations with Ukraine is not just related to ongoing direct flights between Turkey and Russia.