Alarm rises in Western capitals about deepening Turkey’s relations with Russia

Western capitals are increasingly concerned about the deepening economic cooperation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, warning of the growing risk that the NATO member could suffer a punitive retaliatory blow if it helps Russia evade sanctions.

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

An EU official said the 27-nation bloc is watching Turkish-Russian cooperation “closely”, expressing concern that Turkey is “increasingly” becoming a platform for trade with Russia.

Another described Turkey’s behavior towards Russia as “very opportunistic,” adding: “We try to make the Turks heed our concerns.”

Washington has repeatedly warned that it will hit countries that help Russia evade sanctions with “secondary sanctions” targeting abuses outside US jurisdiction; But the European Union has been more conservative about doing so.

Deputy US Treasury Secretary Wali Ademo met Turkish officials and bankers in Istanbul in June to warn them of becoming a conduit for illicit Russian money.

A senior Western official suggested that countries could invite their companies and banks to withdraw from Turkey if President Erdo─čan implements the commitments he made on Friday – a highly unusual threat against a fellow NATO country that could cripple the country by $800 billion. economy if foreign companies agree to comply.

The official said that countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia could take action against Ankara by “inviting Western companies to either withdraw from relations in Turkey, or reduce their relations with Turkey, in light of the danger that may result from Turkey expanding its relationship with Russia.” .

However, this proposal was rejected by many 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 from Coca-Cola and Ford to Bosch and BP have long-running and highly profitable operations in the country.

“There are very important economic interests that are likely to struggle aggressively against such negative measures,” said a European official.

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

While acknowledging that a formal EU decision to impose sanctions on Turkey would challenge divisions within the bloc, he indicated that some member states could take action. “For example, they can request restrictions on trade financing or require major financial companies to reduce financing for Turkish companies,” he said.

Three European officials said that there had not yet been any official discussions in Brussels about the potential repercussions for Turkey. Several others cautioned that the full details and ramifications of the discussions in Sochi are not yet clear.

The warnings come a day after Putin and Erdogan – who has taken what he calls a “balanced” approach to Kyiv and Moscow since the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine in February – held a long meeting that culminated in a pledge to increase bilateral trade and deepen economic and energy ties.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, Moscow’s chief energy official, told reporters that Turkey had agreed to start paying for Russian gas in rubles, according to Interfax. He added that Putin and Erdogan discussed developing banking relations and settlements in rubles and lira.

Speaking on his plane returning from Russia, Erdogan told reporters that there had also been “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 have suspended operations in their home country.

Erdogan said that MIR cards will help Russian tourists pay for shopping and hotels. Western officials fear it could also be used to help bypass sanctions.

Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the West are already tense. Washington imposed sanctions on Ankara in 2020 in response to the purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Moscow, although the measures targeted the country’s defense industry rather than the broader economy.

Erdogan, who has repeatedly threatened to veto Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, is seen in many Western capitals as an increasingly unreliable ally. Nevertheless, Turkey is a vital partner for Europe in the fight against terrorism and refugees. The country hosts some 3.7 million Syrians as part of a deal struck with the European Union in 2016 that helped stem the flow of migrants into Europe.

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

Erdogan also played a key role in securing the grain deal signed by Russia and Ukraine last month that aims to avert a global food crisis.

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