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Commentary Geopolitics

Russia Sanctions on Turkey

By Richard Nephew

Last week, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane Ankara claims violated its airspace, setting of warning bells that Russia would respond aggressively in turn.

Today, the Russian government released its full list of sanctions on Turkey. According to Reuters, the sanctions target some agricultural items, charter flights, and Turkish transportation companies, and build upon more intangible restrictions on travel and tourism between the two countries. That said, these sanctions do not target the core substance of Russian-Turkey trade and, importantly, there is nothing yet announced by the Russian government that indicates an end to their cooperation on energy projects.

This signals a climb-down from either threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would respond severely, but the possibility of future conflict remains high.

A climb-down by Putin…

A number of analysts – myself included – suggested that there was more smoke than fire in Russia’s likely response. Despite Russian rhetoric, the Russian government quickly signaled that there would be no military confrontation over the incident (perhaps reflective of Russian self-awareness that its own provocative behavior had a role to play, or more likely that a confrontation with Turkey – and, ultimately, NATO – is not in Russia’s interest at the moment). More importantly, even though Putin signaled that there would be economic consequences, it was rapidly apparent that Russia could not afford a massive reduction in trade with Turkey given its ongoing economic crisis set in motion by the collapse of oil prices in 2014 and subsequent impact of Western sanctions. Though some reports outlined the manner in which Russia could hurt the Turkish economy, even within these reports there were indications that Russia could not absorb a real trade disruption. For example, CNBC noted that while the Russians accounted for $5.9 billion in Turkish exports in 2014, Turkey accounted for $25.2 billion in Russian exports in the same year. As a lack of hard currency is one of Russia’s major economic problems at the moment, it would make no sense for Moscow to accelerate this trend.

This also contains a lesson for Europe with respect to the possibility of future sanctions that it might impose over Ukraine: the Russians had every incentive to make Turkey pay, but simply could not afford to do so.

…For now.

All this said, Russia and Turkey continue to have divergent interests with respect to Syria and this, combined with Russian military operations in Syria, means that the possibility of future escalation remains. Moscow has moderated its initial impulse to lash out aggressively at Turkey, but there will be future incidents so long as Syria remains in its unresolved status and Russia feels a need to flex its muscles abroad.

Moreover, Putin’s climb down may be temporary and motivated by short-term exigency. His rhetoric, and that of the rest of the Russian government, signals a real sense of broken trust with Turkey. So long as Putin and those around him are in power in Russia (and Erdogan and those around him are in power in Turkey), there will likely be bruised relations between the two countries, possibly affecting future projects and economic ties.


Richard Nephew is Director of the Economic Statecraft, Sanctions, and Energy Markets program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, and the former Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the State Department. The views expressed are his own.


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Commentary Geopolitics

Russia Sanctions on Turkey