Due largely to a blend of over-ambitious policy objectives, assertive neo-Ottomanism and colossal miscalculations, Turkey has become the only country in modern history to be officially sanctioned by Russia, and is also facing the threat of E.U. and U.S. sanctions—all in under five years.
And this has occurred at a time when Turkey’s economy is fragile due to fundamental balance of payment imbalances, two-digit interest and inflation rates, soaring unemployment and a cash-strapped public vault, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Turkish Central Bank’s net foreign currency reserves are at an all-time low of negative $46.5 billion, and the Turkish lira has lost 30 percent of its value over the course of 2020.
The punishing Russian sanctions came at the beginning of 2016, shortly after Ankara shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet over Turkey’s border with Syria on the basis of the claim that the Russian aircraft had violated Turkish airspace. Within six months, the sanctions had cost the Turkish economy billions of dollars in lost exports and a 90 percent drop in Russian tourist arrivals. President Vladimir Putin agreed to gradually lift the sanctions only after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan officially apologized to him in June 2016—six months after threatening that “Turkey would shoot down every foreign aircraft that violates Turkish airspace.” Erdoğan’s apology also came with a tacit endorsement of Russian clout in the Syrian civil war.
Five years after Turkey shot down the Russian jet, Erdoğan challenged the United States to impose sanctions on his country. “Whatever your sanctions are, don’t be late,” Erdoğan said in response to uncertainty over possible sanctions being considered by Washington in retaliation for Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system and for bypassing U.S. sanctions on Iran via a Turkish state bank.
President-elect Joe Biden will choose—if he decides to revoke the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)—from a menu of economic sanctions on Turkey. (Although President Trump has held off sanctioning Turkey under CAATSA, the final version of the must-pass annual defense policy bill unveiled on Dec. 4 mandates that the U.S. president sanction Turkey for its acquisition of the S-400 system.) While the possibility of U.S. sanctions represents a potentially multi-billion-dollar threat to Turkey’s already ailing economy, this threat is not an imminent danger.
But then there is the European Union. The threat of E.U. sanctions against Turkey is already on the table—and no matter how E.U. leaders behave at their summit on Dec. 10-11, E.U. sanctions on Turkey will remain an option for the foreseeable future. The hostile atmosphere between Ankara and Brussels and potential escalation in various disputes are too real to allow the European Union to drop the sanctions card altogether.
Until recently, it was Turkey’s exponentially widening democratic culture gap that effectively halted accession talks with the European Union. Now the problems are an even wider democratic deficit; the Cyprus dispute, to which is linked the conflict over hydrocarbon exploration off the divided island; military and political conflicts with Greece; and a recent “mini clash of civilizations” between Ankara and Paris.
Most recently, tensions arose after a German frigate that is part of an E.U. mission enforcing an arms embargo against Libya intercepted a Turkish freighter in the Mediterranean Sea and carried out what the Turkish government dismissed as an “illegal” search. Shortly before that, in June, France said one of its frigates was “lit up” three times by Turkish naval targeting radar when it tried to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of involvement in arms trafficking.
The sanctions menu the European Union is considering probably includes measures designed to limit Turkish hydrocarbon exploration, likely in shipping, banking and energy. Another option, supported in particular by Austria, is to end a plan to broaden Turkey’s trade preferences with the European Union. Some sanctions look inevitable, but the question is what the markets will bear.
A September report in the German newspaper Die Welt pointed out that Turkey’s economic problems may be its own fault, but could spread to Europe and become a problem for the West, especially if the Turkish economy collapses completely. “Europe’s financial institutions must fear the collapse of Turkey. Many of them are still involved in the country with billions of euros, and the West has a lot to lose. This makes sanctions more difficult—and strengthens President Erdoğan’s authoritarian position,” the article said. “These are the European banks which, even after four years of ongoing Turkish crisis, are still involved in Turkey with investments of billions of euros. Western financial institutions will have to fear serious depreciation if the country is to truly enter into an extensive balance of payments crisis.”
Die Welt wrote that Spanish financial institutions’ exposure to a Turkish collapse was $62 billion. That exposure is $29 billion for French banks, $12 billion for British banks, $11 billion for German banks and $8.7 billion for Italian banks. That means lenders from five E.U. countries have a combined vulnerability of $122.7 billion.
To avoid that disaster scenario, Erdoğan has launched a new charm offensive. He is promising democratic, judicial and economic reforms, and said “Turkey’s future is in Europe,” a puzzling sentiment when contrasted with his earlier characterization of Europe as “an Islamophobic Christian club, Nazis and remnants of Nazis and fascists.”
Erdoğan fears Western sanctions because they may accelerate Turkey’s economic downfall, which could lead to early presidential and parliamentary elections that might finally bring down his government.
Sanctions and poverty will surely prune Erdoğan’s approval ratings, but they could give him a boost too. In the event of sanctions from Europe and/or America, Erdoğan will revert to his fiercely anti-Western, Maduro-esque rhetoric that “foreign and evil imperialist powers, modern-day Crusaders, are plotting all this misfortune against Turkey.” That cheap rhetoric could unite conservative and nationalist Turks behind him and augment his vote. The combined effect would probably be negative for Erdoğan, but this is not a certainty.
On the other hand, if Erdoğan thinks he can get away with his irredentist confrontation with Western civilization and pursue an even more aggressive policy without any cost, he will not miss the opportunity, and that will mean more trouble for the neighborhood. It’s up to the grown-ups to find the best way to teach the bully some manners.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News, and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is also a founder of, and associate editor at, the Ankara-based think tank Sigma.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.