By Conor Gallagher
Türkiye continues to exasperate Washington and Brussels with its willingness to chart its own course in its relationship with Russia. While ties between Ankara and Moscow grow stronger, the Turkish relationship with NATO is on the rocks. Washington is using Greece and Cyprus to increase pressure on Türkiye in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Türkiye continues to block the NATO bids of Sweden and Finland.
Meanwhile the EU is reportedly discussing applying extraterritorial sanctions on Türkiye (pushed by members Greece and Cyprus) in what would be a major escalation. From Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty:
The EU diplomats I spoke to on the condition of anonymity indicated that the move to broaden the scope of EU sanctions should primarily be read as scare tactics to force third countries into aligning with the EU position on the issue. Some countries, notably EU candidate countries Serbia and Türkiye, have not followed Brussels’ lead on sanctions to date…
It was Cyprus and Greece who were allegedly instrumental in pushing for the bloc going toward extraterritoriality. Does that mean Türkiye might be in the crosshairs? In a leaked European Commission document assessing the impact of the EU’s Russia sanctions so far — a document seen by RFE/RL — Türkiye, alongside China, is mentioned in a subchapter on circumvention with the text stating that “the value of Türkiye’s exports to Russia nearly doubled since the second quarter [of 2022].” The document also states that “exports of some member states to Türkiye have also risen sharply over 2022.”
The threats of secondary sanctions come on the heels of the Netherlands-based operator of TurkStream, South Stream Transport, temporarily losing its export license after it was judged to be in breach of EU sanctions against Russia. Countries receiving gas via TurkStream include Türkiye, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ankara and Moscow are also pressing ahead with plans to make Türkiye a natural gas hub for Europe – an irritating thought for Washington and many in Europe who want to completely end the relationship with Russian energy no matter the economic costs to the EU.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking to the media about the Nord Stream pipelines and plans with Türkiye on Oct. 31, said:
It is difficult for us to control the situation because the [Nord Stream] site is in the exclusive economic zone of Denmark, Sweden and, farther, Germany.
In this sense, it is easier for us to work with Turkiye, first of all, because President Erdogan keeps his word. If we come to an agreement on something – this may be difficult to do, but if we come to an agreement, we try to implement it. It was the first point. And secondly, it is easier for us to control the Black Sea area.
Therefore, it is a perfectly realistic project, and we can accomplish it relatively quickly. And there will be enough of those wishing to sign contracts. I have no doubt about that.
Russia claimed in September and October that it foiled attacks on Turkstream. Expanding the pipeline would still face challenges from potential sanctions and the EU’s reluctance to buy Russian gas. There might be a workaround that would suit all parties, however. From the Middle East Eye:
Building a third and possibly fourth line in TurkStream may help to transport more gas, but there would be technical problems in building them due to potential sanctions that could be imposed on turbines and European construction companies.
Also, their maintenance wouldn’t be feasible if spare parts for the pipelines weren’t made available by western countries. And even if they were completed in a couple of years, it isn’t clear if EU countries would buy Russian gas.
The most realistic option is for Russian gas to be commercialised with other gas sources at the Epias energy exchange in Istanbul, physically blended in a hub to be established in Thrace and then delivered to European buyers.
Aside from the US, Türkiye is really the only NATO member to pursue independent foreign policy – largely due to its indispensable position controlling the Dardanelles Strait and access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean.
As the only NATO member that hasn’t closed its airspace to Russia or enacted economic sanctions on the country, tourism and trade with Russia is booming. Much of the latter can be attributed to setting itself up as a middleman between Russia and the EU to facilitate trade bypassing sanctions. From Hurriyet:
Türkiye boosted its exports to the EU by 4.8 percent from September last year to $8.9 billion…On the imports front, Russia topped the list last month. Imports from Russia soared 187 percent year-on-year to $6.9 billion.
There’s the case of unknown capital inflows into Türkiye, which Erdogan’s political opponents believe Russia is behind in order to help with the country’s foreign exchange shortfall.
Unorthodox policy, widening CA deficit, high public & private FX debt, weak reserves.
What is stopping another lira crisis from happening?
– inflows under net errors and omissions
– central bank interventions
Read more on @TheTerminal https://t.co/CqGAWLh5O3 pic.twitter.com/s2lT6kyzsN
— Selva Baziki (@SelvaBaziki) October 28, 2022
Ugur Gurses, a former Turkish central banker, believes the Russians are using a nuclear power plant they’re constructing in Türkiye to transfer funds by purchasing Turkish bonds instead of direct bank transfers. In return, Türkiye — by not heeding the embargoes — is helping the movement of capital, offering an important function as a bridge for goods to flow to Russia.
Any European secondary sanctions that hurt the inflation-battered Turkish economy ahead of next year’s elections would be a blow for President Erdogan who is facing one of his toughest reelection fights ever. The official annual inflation rate currently stands at a 24-year high of 83 percent, although independent economists put it at 186 percent.
Elsewhere, Türkiye continues to hold up the NATO bids of Sweden and Finland. Erdogan demanded concessions for its vote, including extradition from Finland and Sweden of individuals it labels terrorists and adjusting laws in Helsinki and Stockholm to allow arms sales to Türkiye.
It is believed that Türkiye is likely to let Finland’s application proceed but is still not sold on Sweden’s. The previous Swedish government quickly lifted the 2019 arms embargo on Ankara, and has at least partially stopped supporting Kurdish groups in Syria.
But there are still disagreements over cracking down on the Kurdistan Workers Party and extraditing people Türkiye deems to be terrorists. Sweden is home to an estimated 100,000 people of Kurdish origin. Türkiye has sought the extradition of 73 people from Sweden, but so far Stockholm has only sent one.
Sweden detained a 26-year-old Kurdish activist who arrived in Sweden when he was 18 and now fears he will be imprisoned and tortured upon his return to Türkiye because of his homosexuality and Kurdish ties. Sweden released him after 55 days.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is believed to be pressuring Stockholm to get moving on the extraditions. From Al-Monitor:
Sources with close knowledge of the deliberations speaking anonymously to Al-Monitor said Stoltenberg is pressuring Kristerrson’s center-right government that was formed earlier this month much in the same way he did its predecessors to make concessions to Türkiye. “He has been pressuring the Swedes like hell to turn away from their alleged ‘rigid’ approach to human rights embodied by [former Foreign Minister] Ann Linde.
Stoltenberg is scheduled to meet with Erdogan in Istanbul on Nov. 4, and Sweden’s new prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, will visit Nov. 8. They’re slated to discuss the NATO bids, and the rising tensions between Türkiye, Greece, and Cyprus.
Washington has been using Greece and Cyprus to up the pressure on Türkiye to toe the NATO line. On Oct. 26, US F-22s flew over part of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, enraging Ankara. The provocation comes after the Biden administration lifted the 35-year-old ban on the sale of US arms to Cyprus in September.
Cyprus is split between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Cyprus in the north, which is recognized only by Ankara. Cyprus was required to block Russian naval vessels from accessing its ports in order to get the US arms sale ban lifted.
Washington is also abandoning its formerly-neutral stance on Greek-Turkish relations. In September Greece received its first two F-16 military jets from the US as part of a $1.5 billion program to upgrade the Greek fleet. Ankara, which is excluded from the US F-35 program for buying Russian S-400 air defense systems, is worried that in time Greece could have a stronger air force than Türkiye.
The US is also ramping up its control over Greece’s Alexandroupolis port in the northeast of the country 18 miles from the Turkish border and using it as an entry point for supplies to Ukraine. US military officials have proposed deepening and expanding the port in order to accommodate US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
The US decision to make a fortress out of Alexandroupolis came after Türkiye’s decision to close the Turkish straits to all warships after the war in Ukraine began, including its NATO partners who wanted to send weapons to Ukraine via the straits.The move was well within Ankara’s rights under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, and Türkiye’s adherence to the agreement has been credited in not making the Ukraine conflict even worse.
Turkish drones recorded Greece deploying US-donated armored vehicles on the islands of Lesbos and Samos, which is in violation of international law. Hasan Koni, a scholar on strategic studies at Istanbul Kultur University, told Türkiye’s Anadolu Agency the US moves in Greece are meant to send a message to Erdogan:
The American security apparatus has also recognized that the balance of power in the region is shifting toward Türkiye and needs to be “checked by empowering Greece,” he said, adding that Washington’s push for more Greek bases is aimed at “containing Türkiye.”
Adding fuel to the fire is an Oct. 3 deal Ankara signed with Tripoli to explore for oil and gas off the Libyan coast – potentially very near Greek waters. From Politico:
Much of the sensitivity over the exploration deal boils down to disagreements over who represents the legitimate government in Libya. Ankara signed its exploration agreement with the Tripoli-based government, which it backs, rather than with a rival military administration based in Benghazi in eastern Libya since 2014.
The U.S. State Department said the provisional government in Tripoli is compelled by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum not to sign new agreements, but that argument hardly washes with Turks. The eastern based government called the maritime accord illegitimate.
“So, it is legitimate for Italy, Egypt, Malta and a host of other countries to sign dozens of agreements with the same government in recent times, and not legitimate for Türkiye? That makes no sense,” said the Turkish ambassador.