European diplomats are reportedly increasingly concerned that, though a Nato member, Turkey is becoming a haven for individuals and businesses seeking to dodge Western sanctions imposed on Russia for waging war in Ukraine.
In another sign of simmering tensions between Turkey and the West, Fahrettin Altun, head of communications for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has told the Wall Street Journal that the West must lift its block on delivering F-35 stealth fighter jets and also provide Patriot missile batteries to Turkey before Ankara will consider sending its Russian-made surface-to-air S-400 missile systems to Ukraine.
At March 25's Nato summit in Brussels, Erdogan also did not even get a pull-aside meeting with US President Joe Biden, despite his officials pushing hard for such an encounter, Al-Monitor reported diplomatic sources as saying.
Turkey has risked Moscow's ire by providing Ukraine with military drones but at the same time it has resisted imposing sanctions and other economic measures, such as an airspace ban, on Russia over the Ukraine conflict, arguing that it can use its position of having good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv to keep channels open that could prove crucial in bringing peace.
On March 22, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Nato countries should prioritise a ceasefire, not just sanctions on Russia. Ankara, he said, was redoubling diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis.
“Of course, we need to show unity and solidarity within Nato, we need to show deterrence. But who is paying the price of the ongoing war?” he said.
Turkey is also resisting sanctions as it remains in a state of economic crisis that economists have warned could even result in a systemic collapse. It therefore needs to minimise the economic damage caused by the war.
Turkey imports almost all the oil and gas it consumes, with 45% of the latter provided by Russia. High energy prices and the expected loss of millions of Russian and Ukrainian tourists this year are two major headaches caused to the Erdogan administration by the war so far.
Some Turkish businesses also see potential benefits from the conflict. The Ukraine crisis could present a big opportunity “not only for the [Turkish] textile industry but also for other sectors”, Hikmet Tanriverdi, a textile industry representative on the board of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, told the UK financial daily the Financial Times.
European countries remain reluctant to publicly criticise Turkey’s stance on Russia, but behind the scenes there are growing concerns about the long-term implications, the FT reported on March 24.
Turkey’s membership of the EU customs union could make it “very tempting” for European companies to seek to circumvent sanctions on Russia by establishing subsidiaries in Turkey, the FT quoted one European official as saying.
This week also brought reports of high-profile sanctioned Russian oligarchs, such as Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich, moving their superyachts to Turkish ports in an effort at avoiding sanctions.
The Ukraine crisis has also reopened defence quarrels between Washington and Ankara. In a letter to the WSJ, Altun dealt with the longstanding situation in which Turkey has been denied F-35 jets because it defied the wishes of Nato and Washington by going ahead with the acquisition of S-400s from the Kremlin.
“Turkey, which views European Union membership as a strategic objective and takes pride in its Nato membership, expects to be treated by the West as it deserves. It would take confidence-building measures, not so-called informal proposals, to repair the relationship,” Altun wrote.
Referring to an opinion piece in the WSJ from Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer—in which he said that Turkey might send its Russian-made missiles to Ukraine—Altun said the West must first deliver the F-35s and Patriots to Turkey, and without preconditions.
Altun further wrote in his letter that responsibility for normalising relations with Turkey is in the hands of the West. “The Ukraine crisis has shown that the geopolitical assessments of those who underestimated Turkey’s strategic importance, claimed that Nato was ‘brain dead’, and thought that national borders were no longer subject to discussion, were misguided,” he said.