Anxiety grows in Western capitals over Turkey’s deepening ties with Russia

Western capitals are increasingly alarmed by deepening economic cooperation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, warning of a growing risk that a NATO member state could face punitive retaliation if it helps Russia avoid sanctions.

Six Western officials told the Financial Times they are concerned about a pledge Friday by Turkish and Russian leaders to expand their trade and energy cooperation after four hour meeting in Sochi.

One EU official said the 27-member bloc was following Turkish-Russian cooperation “more and more closely”, expressing concern that Turkey “more and more” became a platform for trade with Russia.

Another described Turkey’s behavior towards Russia as “very opportunistic”, adding “We are trying to get the Turks to pay attention to our concerns.”

Washington has repeatedly warned that it will hit countries that help Russia evade sanctions with “secondary sanctions” aimed at violations outside of US legal jurisdiction, but the EU is doing so with more restraint.

U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo warned Turkish officials and Istanbul bankers in June not to become a conduit for illegal Russian money.

One senior Western official suggested that countries could call on their companies and banks to leave Turkey if Erdogan honors the commitments he outlined on Friday, a highly unusual threat against another NATO member state that could hurt the country’s economy worth 800 billion dollars. if foreign firms agree to comply with them.

The official said countries that have sanctioned Russia could act against Ankara by “calling on Western firms to either sever relations with Turkey or reduce their relations with Turkey in light of the risk that would be created by Turkey’s expansion of its relations.” relations with Russia.

However, this proposal was rejected by several other Western officials who questioned how it would work in practical and legal terms and whether it would be a good idea.

Turkey is deeply integrated into the Western financial system, and brands from Coca-Cola and Ford to Bosch and BP have long-standing and often highly profitable operations in the country.

“There are very important economic interests that are likely to actively fight against such negative actions,” said one European official.

But the official added that he “does not exclude any negative actions.” [if] Turkey has become too close to Russia.”

While he acknowledged that a formal EU decision on sanctions against Turkey would be difficult given divisions within the bloc, he suggested that some individual member states might take action. “For example, they could ask for restrictions on trade finance, or ask major financial companies to cut funding for Turkish companies,” he said.

Three European officials said there had not yet been any official discussions in Brussels about the possible consequences for Turkey. Several others warned that the full details and implications of the Sochi discussions are not yet clear.

The warnings came a day after Putin and Erdogan, who has taken what he calls a “balanced” approach to Kyiv and Moscow since February’s full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, had a long tête-à-tête that culminated in a joint commit to increase bilateral trade and deepen economic and energy ties.

According to Interfax, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, a senior official in Moscow’s energy department, told reporters that Turkey had agreed to start paying for Russian gas in rubles. Putin and Erdogan discussed the further development of banking ties and settlements in rubles and lira, he added.

Speaking on his plane from Russia, Erdogan told reporters there was also “very serious progress” in the use of Russia’s MIR card payment system, which allows Russians in Turkey to pay by card at a time when Visa and Mastercard have suspended operations in their home country. .

Erdogan said that MIR cards will help Russian tourists pay for purchases and hotels. Western officials fear they could also be used to circumvent sanctions.

Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the West are already strained. Washington imposed sanctions on Ankara in 2020 in response to the purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Moscow, although the measures were aimed at the country’s defense industry rather than the economy as a whole.

Erdogan, who has repeatedly threatened to veto the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO, is viewed in many Western capitals as an increasingly unreliable ally. Nevertheless, Turkey is a vital partner for Europe in the fight against terrorism and refugees. The country is home to about 3.7 million Syrians as part of an agreement struck with the EU in 2016 that helped stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine underlined Turkey’s strategic position, which controls access to the straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

Erdogan also played a key role in the grain deal, signed by Russia and Ukraine last month, aimed at averting a global food crisis.