Turkey and Russia closer than ever despite Western sanctions

By Dorian Jones - RFI

The leaders of Turkey and Russia are continuing to deepen relations as Moscow intensifies its war against Ukraine. Their frequent meetings and close ties fuel concerns among Turkey's Western allies that Ankara is circumventing sanctions against Russia. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week for the fourth time in as many months.  

Erdogan and Putin smiled and greeted one another with a warm handshake. Their latest encounter was on Thursday in Astana, Kazakhstan, on the sidelines of the summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Erdogan said he wants to build on the success of a United Nations-brokered deal that allows Ukrainian grain blockaded by Russian naval forces to enter world markets. 

Ankara played a pivotal role in assisting the United Nations to broker the grain deal between Ukraine and Russia, known as the Istanbul agreement.

"Turkey is determined to strengthen and continue the grain exports under the Istanbul agreement and the transfer of Russian grain and fertilizer to less developed countries via Turkey," Erdogan said.

But Putin criticized the deal's implementation, claiming countries in need are not benefiting from the agreement. 

The deal comes up for renewal next month.
Turkish Russia analyst Galip Dalay of London's Chatham House says the Ukrainian grain deal is seen as a vindication by Erdogan of his policy of maintaining close ties with Putin.

"The role Turkey can play is very much contingent upon having a working relationship with Russia. The Ukrainian grain deal is one of them. Turkey can play a more humanitarian role down the road or a more diplomatic role. All of them require Turkey to have some sort of functional relationship with Moscow as well," said Dalay.

"So to some extent, it is it is accepted that Turkey is engaging in one way or another in some form of a balanced policy towards Russia and on the war. And I submit to some extent there are good outcomes that are coming out of these, such as the grain deals," he added.


Stressing the need to maintain close ties with Moscow, Ankara refuses to enforce Western sanctions against Russia.

The European Union, in a report released last week, strongly criticized Ankara for not enforcing sanctions and warned that European companies could use Turkey to circumvent the restrictions. Washington has also voiced concern.

"There is great potential for development. Trade figures have increased," said Turkish analyst Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners.

"The potential stems from two factors. Obviously, for a lot of European companies, the legal way to bypass sanctions is to set up in Turkey and then to re-export through Turkey. And for Russian companies, of course, they can source from Turkey as well as possibly evade sanctions," Yesilada said. 

"I'm not saying all trade is because of sanctions evasion, but the fact that there's deep animosity between Europe, the United States, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other hand, of course affects commercial relations and potentially Turkey could be the winner."

'Dividing Europe'

Such complaints are likely to grow with Putin this week repeating a suggestion to use Turkey as a hub for distributing Russian gas that was originally intended for Europe.

Erdogan on Friday confirmed that Turkey was ready to participate in the project. Ankara is trying to negotiate a cut-price gas deal from Moscow.

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"For Putin, the relationship with Turkey is important [because] it's about dividing Europe," said senior strategist Timothy Ash of Bluebay Asset Management. "Turkey is a key Nato member. The more he can pull Erdogan and Turkey away from the West, that's all the better. "

"For Erdogan, he's got elections due by June of next year, and he's got a very difficult balance of payments issue. And he thinks by helping Russia get around sanctions, he thinks Turkey can earn key balance of payment receipts, and that will help," added Ash.

Ankara denies it is sanctions-busting. But observers say Erdogan is walking an increasingly fine line by looking to keep close ties with Russia, knowing at the same time that his dealings with Moscow could trigger retaliation from the US and Europe in the form of secondary sanctions.