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December 11, 2020


TURKEY: (Toothless) EU and US sanctions next

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 4 mins)

Due to a toxic mix of over-ambitious policy objectives, aggressive nationalism, and colossal policy miscalculations, Turkey is set to reach a rather peculiar, if not unique, record: becoming a country that has been officially sanctioned by Russia, the US, and the EU. All in less than five years and despite Turkey’s membership in NATO and its official recognition as an EU membership candidate.

Luckily for Ankara, the soon-to-come EU and US sanctions will likely have no meaningful impact on the Turkish economy as they will target individuals connected to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation -TPAO (EU sanctions) and the Presidency of Defense Industries-SSB (US sanctions). Regardless, Turkey’s response will be loud and outraged, with President Tayyip Erdogan drumming up as much nationalist hysteria as possible to boost its popularity. Erdogan will likely revert to his classic rhetoric denouncing “evil foreign imperialist powers plotting against Turkey,” a mantra that helps to unite conservative and nationalists Turks and disguise the fact that Ankara will not materially retaliate. However, it is doubtful that the sanctions – which have neither a clear objective nor the appropriate “bite” – will push Erdogan to revisit his stance on the East Mediterranean dispute and the acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

In marked contrast, the 2016 Russian sanctions, enacted after Ankara shot down a Russian fighter plane over Turkey’s border with Syria, forced Erdogan to make an official apology and, critically, to tacitly endorse Moscow’s clout in the Syrian civil war. The sanctions cost the Turkish economy billions of dollars in lost export revenues (imports of everything from tomatoes and apricots to chicken products and salt from Turkey were banned) and a 90% drop In Russian tourist arrivals (charter flights and holidays packaged were banned) in Turkey.

Mild EU and US sanctions

EU leaders agreed on limited sanctions targeting individuals and companies in response to Turkey’s gas exploration and aggressive posture in waters off the coast of Greece and Cyprus. The decision paves the way for penalizing individuals and companies involved in planning and carrying out the gas exploration with travel bans into the EU and asset freezes. The vice-president of the TPAO and the deputy director of its exploration department have been on an EU sanctions list since late 2019. The new sanctions would add as yet unspecified people and organizations to that list. The names of those to be listed will be published in the next few weeks. The EU is expected to coordinate any further sanctions with US president-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Wider measures will be considered, at the earliest, in March 2021.

The US also seems to have decided to sanction Turkey over its purchase of S-400 missiles from Moscow. Recall that Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 had already cost Ankara the expulsion from the US-led F-35 program. Congress has also repeatedly called for sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). President Donald Trump has resisted bipartisan calls from Congress to punish Turkey for its deal with Russia for a long time. He has apparently decided to move as the Senate is expected to vote soon on the defense appropriation bill, which would require the administration to issue sanctions within 30 days of the final vote.

The 12 options under CAATSA include banking restrictions and prohibiting loans from the US and international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF. The act (sec. 235) requires the US President to select at least five of 12 possible sanctions on countries in violation.

To placate Congress and limit the damage in Turkey-US ties, the administration is expected to choose some of the least severe measures listed in section 235 of the act, which will probably target only the SSB and its head, Ismail Demir. The sanctions are expected to be announced imminently. For the sanctions to be lifted once imposed, Turkey must certify that it no longer has an S-400 system.

Given the upcoming change in the White House, Ankara is likely to be relieved that sanctions are signed off by President Trump and not by his successor, Joe Biden.