Western capitals are increasingly alarmed by the deepening economic cooperation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, warning of the growing risk that the NATO member state will be hit with punitive retaliation if it helps Russia to avoid sanctions.
Six Western officials told the Financial Times they were concerned about Friday’s promise by Turkish and Russian leaders to expand cooperation on trade and energy after a four-hour meeting in Sochi.
An EU official said the 27-member bloc was watching Turkish-Russian cooperation “increasingly closely” over fears that Turkey was “increasingly” becoming a trading platform with Russia.
Another called Turkey’s behavior towards Russia “very opportunistic”, adding: “We are trying to get the Turks to pay attention to our concerns.”
Washington has repeatedly warned it will hit countries that help Russia evade sanctions with ‘secondary sanctions’ that target violations beyond US legal jurisdiction, but the EU has been more reluctant to do it.
US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo met with Turkish officials and Istanbul bankers in June to warn them not to become a conduit for illicit Russian money.
A senior Western official has suggested countries could call on their businesses and banks to pull out of Turkey if Erdoğan honors commitments he made on Friday – a highly unusual threat against another NATO member state that could cripple the country’s $800 billion economy. if foreign companies agreed to comply.
The official said countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia could act against Ankara by “calling on Western companies either to withdraw from their relations in Turkey or to reduce their relations with Turkey, in light of the risk that would be created by Turkey expanding its relations with Russia”.
However, this suggestion 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 ranging 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 would probably fight hard against such negative actions,” said a European official.
But the official added that he “would not rule out any negative action [if] Turkey is getting too close to Russia.”
While admitting that a formal EU decision on sanctions against Turkey would be a challenge given the divisions within the bloc, he suggested that some individual member states could take action. “For example, they could ask for restrictions on trade finance or ask big financial companies to cut funding for Turkish companies,” he said.
Three EU officials said there had not yet been any formal discussions in Brussels about possible repercussions for Turkey. Several others warned that the full details and implications of the talks in Sochi were not yet clear.
The warnings come a day after Putin and Erdoğan – who have pursued what he calls a “balanced” approach in Kyiv and Moscow since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February – held a long head- one-on-one that culminated in a joint pledge to increase bilateral trade volumes and deepen economic and energy ties.
Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, a senior energy official in Moscow, told reporters that Turkey had agreed to start paying for Russian gas in rubles, according to Interfax. Putin and Erdoğan discussed the further development of banking ties and settlements in rubles and liras, he added.
Speaking on his plane back from Russia, Erdoğan told reporters that there were also “very serious developments” over 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 have suspended operations in their home countries.
Erdoğan said MIR cards would help Russian tourists pay for shopping and hotels. Western officials fear they could also be used to help circumvent sanctions.
Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the West are already strained. Washington hit Ankara with sanctions in 2020 in retaliation for buying an S-400 air defense system from Moscow, though the measures targeted the country’s defense industry rather than the wider economy.
Erdoğan, who has repeatedly threatened to veto Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership, is seen in many Western capitals as an increasingly unreliable ally. Yet Turkey is a vital partner for Europe in the fight against terrorism and refugees. The country hosts around 3.7 million Syrians under a deal struck with the EU in 2016 that has helped stem the flow of migrants to Europe.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted Turkey’s strategic location, controlling access to the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Erdoğan also played a key role in securing the grain deal signed by Russia and Ukraine last month that aimed to avert a global food crisis.