As of late, economic sanctions have been tools of Western governments. The United States and the European Union are among the most prolific users of such sanctions, most recently utilizing them against Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine. It is not uncommon for Russian diplomats to rail against economic sanctions as a Western assault against Russian interests, which makes Russian actions over the past few days so interesting. Following the downing of a Russian military aircraft by Turkey, Moscow began to impose a sanctions package against Turkey. Russian president Vladimir Putin is demanding an apology for the downing of the warplane, but Turkish president Erdoğan is standing firm that Turkey was within its rights. So far it seems unlikely that the sanctions are meant to actually cripple the Turkish economy, but nevertheless Russian economic coercion could have a stark effect on the future of Turkish-Russian relations.
On November 25th, President Putin vowed to impose sanctions on Turkey in response to the downin of the Russian jet, which Putin described as a “criminal act”. The initial response included restrictions on Russian tourism to Turkey, with officials advising citizens against travel to Turkey and several tourism firms suspending travel packages. Such actions could cause moderate harm the Turkish economy as Russian tourists reportedly bring $4 billion year to Turkey, second only to Germans. On November 28th, the Kremlin revealed official sanctions against Turkey that are to include bans on the import on certain Turkish goods, restrictions on the operations of Turkish organizations inside Russia, and a prohibition on hiring Turkish employees and contractors starting January 1st, effectively banning work visas and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. A ban on chartered flights to Russia is also included. Finally, on November 30th, Russian officials announced import restrictions on Turkish food imports, including fruits and vegetables, some poultry products, and salt.
Many of the specifics of the sanctions package are yet to be released, but the continuing list of sectors to be restricted emphasizes Russia’s displeasure with Turkish actions. It is clear, however, that restrictions are not meant to be seriously detrimental to the Turkish economy. If Russia truly wanted to hurt Turkey more important trade sectors would be on the table. Of particular importance is the energy sector. Russian natural gas exports accounts for nearly 70% of Turkey’s consumption. Additionally, ongoing energy development projects, such as the BlueStream 2 pipeline, are important to Turkey’s growing energy needs. For the time being, there has been no direct talk of pulling energy into the sanctions package, which bodes well for the eventual normalization of relations. This is compounded by the fact that Russia’s economy is already hurting and is estimated to contract by up to 4% this year thanks to low oil prices and Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict. A further restriction on Russia’s economic partners could be hard for it to countenance.
Despite the sanctions being relatively tame at this point, there are some visible economic consequences. The market is responding negatively to the tensions between the two states. There have been market losses for Turkish firms and some questions about the future of projects, including the planned construction of two Russian gas power plants in Turkey. Additionally, the ban on fruits and vegetables could bleed over into a more general food ban like the one that Russia has implemented against the European Union. Turkish vegetables reportedly make up about 20% of Russian imports. However, an expansion of the sanctions language is unlikely that given Russia’s already precarious economic state and existing trade restrictions..
Despite the fact that the current sanctions do not significantly hinder Turkey’s economy the situation could have a real impact on Russia-Turkey relations, and not in the way that Moscow intends. It is possible that Russia’s attempt at economic coercion could push Turkey further towards the West. The incident has already revived the issue of Turkey’s NATO membership, and a potential economic split with Russia does not bode well for Moscow’s attempts to marginalize the US and the EU in the region. The problem with the Russian sanctions is that Turkey has good alternatives to almost all sectors except for energy. Turkey is a strong state with warm relations with the West, which would surely support it in the event of a falling out with Russia. There are also plans underway to minimize Russia’s hold on Turkey’s energy sector, primarily the pipeline projects with Azerbaijan.
So what is the reason behind Russia’s sanctions? The concession demanded from Turkey, and more specifically of President Erdoğan, does not seem to be large. Despite the gravity of the downed aircraft, Putin is insisting upon an apology. However, an apology from a head of state is not simply a matter of words. For Turkey, it would mean reneging on its position of maintaining its sovereign territory and an admission of weakness, which could open up the door for more Russian violations of Turkish airspace. Regardless of how the international community views the prudence of Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet, a direct apology is unlikely to be supported by Turkey’s allies and is beyond Erdoğan’s ability to concede. Despite the low likelihood of an official apology, domestic sentiment in Russia, as well as the international perceptions of Russia, required Moscow to save face through some kind of punitive action. Given that a military response would risk a full-scale conflict with NATO, and that Russia is already engaged in Syria and unofficially in Ukraine, means that an alternative action needed to be taken; one that served to demonstrate Moscow’s dissatisfaction while preventing serious harm to Russia’s security and economy.
As such, the Russian sanctions should not be thought of in terms of serious coercion or deterrence, but as a signaling tool for the benefit of its domestic population and its international neighbors. It is unlikely that the sanctions by themselves will have much of an impact on Turkey’s position. Real pressure on Ankara will likely be levied through the potential threat of military imposition, which has already begun as Russia has moved its own S-400 antiaircraft vessels in range of Turkish territory. Ultimately, it is up to Turkey whether or not the Russian sanctions will be a passing cloud, or if they portend a storm of distrust and tension with its northern neighbor. If Turkey continues to soften its position, as evidenced by President Erdoğan’s recent proclamation of “sadness” over the incident, it is possible that relations could normalize over the coming months. In such an event, it is possible that the sanctions could disintegrate before they are fully implemented, which would be the most beneficial outcome for both countries. For the time being, we can expect to see more speculation about a Turkish-Russian split and the potential for military escalation. However, it is unlikely that the sanctions will be lasting or particularly effectual in their current form.
Travis Cady is the managing editor of ExPatt Magazine and a master’s candidate at the Patterson School specializing in International Commerce. He is currently a working as a researcher on global energy security. He previously graduated from the University of Louisville, studying political science and philosophy, and has traveled in both Europe and Asia. His interests include international trade networks, regional security, and diplomatic relations.