Alarm strikes in western capitals over Turkey’s deeper ties to Russia

Western capitals are increasingly concerned about the intensification of economic cooperation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, warning of the growing risk that the NATO member state could face punitive reprisals if it helps Russia avoid sanctions.

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

An EU official said the 27-member bloc was monitoring Turkish-Russian cooperation “increasingly”, expressing concern that Turkey was becoming “more and more” a platform for trade with Russia.

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

Washington has repeatedly warned that it will hit countries that help Russia evade sanctions with “secondary sanctions” targeting violations beyond US legal jurisdiction, but the EU is more reluctant to do so.

US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo met Turkish officials and bankers in Istanbul in June to warn them not to become a conduit for illegal Russian money.

A senior Western official suggested that countries could call on their companies and banks to withdraw from Turkey if Erdoğan honors his commitments he made on Friday — a highly unusual threat to a fellow NATO member that would harm the country’s economy. value of $800 billion could cripple if foreign companies agreed to comply.

The official said countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia can take action against Ankara by “calling on Western companies to either terminate relations in Turkey or reduce their relations with Turkey, in light of the risk that would arise. as Turkey’s relationship with Russia”.

However, that suggestion was rejected by several other Western officials, who questioned how it would work practically and legally 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 longstanding and often highly profitable operations in the country.

“There are very important economic interests that would probably fight hard against such negative actions,” said a European official.

But the official added that he would not rule out “negative actions”. [if] Turkey is getting too close to Russia.”

While admitting that a formal EU decision on sanctions against Turkey would pose a challenge given the divisions within the bloc, he suggested that some individual member states could take action. “For example, they can ask for restrictions on trade financing or ask the big financial companies to reduce financing to Turkish companies,” he said.

Three European officials said there had been no official discussion in Brussels about possible repercussions for Turkey. Several others warned that the full details and ramifications of the Sochi talks were not yet clear.

The warnings come a day after Putin and Erdoğan — who has pursued what he calls a “balanced” approach to Kiev and Moscow since the massive Russian invasion of Ukraine in February — held a lengthy tête-à-tête that culminated in a joint pledge. to increase bilateral trade volumes and deepen economic and energy ties.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, Moscow’s top energy official, told reporters that Turkey had agreed to pay for Russia’s gas in rubles, Interfax said. Putin and Erdoğan discussed the further development of banking ties and settlements in rubles and lira, he added.

On his plane back from Russia, Erdoğan told journalists there were also “very serious developments” regarding the use of Russia’s MIR payment card system, which allows Russians in Turkey to pay by card at a time when Visa and Mastercard activities in their home country.

Erdoğan said MIR cards would help Russian tourists pay for shops and hotels. Western officials fear they could also be used to evade sanctions.

Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the west are already tense. Washington hit Ankara in 2020 with sanctions in retaliation for the purchase of an S-400 air defense system from Moscow, although the measures targeted the country’s defense industry rather than the broader economy.

Erdoğan, who has repeatedly threatened to veto Sweden and Finland’s admission to NATO, is seen in many Western capitals as an increasingly unreliable ally. Nevertheless, Turkey is an essential partner for Europe in the fight against terrorism and refugees. The country is home to around 3.7 million Syrians as part of a deal signed with the EU in 2016 that helped halt the flow of migrants to Europe.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has underlined Turkey’s strategically important location as it controls access to the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

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

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