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Sanctioned Russian Port Calls in Turkey are a Sign of Compliance Trends

Istanbul Bosporus
The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge over the Bosporus (file image courtesy Alexxx Malev / CC BY SA 3.0)

Published Jul 12, 2023 6:32 PM by Tan Albayrak

Sanctioned Russian cargo ships made more than 100 stops at Turkish ports since May 2022, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is just one symptom of the broader sanctions environment and Turkey's unique relationship with Russia, according to national security lawyer Tan Albayrak - but the pattern may change in the run-up to Turkey's 2024 elections. 

It is no secret that the Erdogan Governments led a foreign policy over the years that focused on strengthening relations with countries in the Middle East and Asia. These policies necessarily led to a drifting away of Turkey from the West. As the economic outlook deteriorated in the country, especially since 2018, Turkey’s economic dependence on Russia grew. Specifically, this dependency on Russia has manifested in the form of energy investments (e.g. TurkStream Gas Pipeline and Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant), tourism (more than four million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2022), and goods trade (including wheat, tomatoes, and steel).

Due this axis shift, as investment flowing in from Western countries came to a halt, the Erdogan Government found itself in a position to rely on inflows from countries in the East – such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. Hence, when the Ukraine war broke out, due to its foreign policy alignment and level of economic dependence, Turkey was not in a position of leverage to enforce the export controls and sanctions restrictions imposed on Russia. This contributed to Turkey’s perception as a “sanctions-free” jurisdiction, such that its name got mentioned in a U.S. tri-seal document listing potential circumvention jurisdictions – alongside China (including Hong Kong and Macau), Armenia, and Uzbekistan.

As of recently, there has been an uptick in Russia-related enforcement actions in Turkey (including the inspection of goods that go to/come from Russia). However, it remains to be seen whether in his new term Erdogan would adopt all of the restrictions that have been imposed on Russia. He may eventually be forced to do so. The economy is in a fragile state and local elections are due March 2024, which Erdogan places a great deal of importance on as he wants to win back from the opposition major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. The profiles of his recent appointments (Mehmet Simsek as the Minister of Finance and Gaye Erkan as the governor of the Central Bank) are viewed by some as an appeal to the West, which needs to be complemented with a clear Russia policy. 

Turkey has been walking this tightrope of a mediator, as witnessed with the Black Sea Grain Initiative. At the same time, prior to the war, Turkey exported the very drones to Ukraine that has helped in its defense against Russia. The two countries have strong economic ties also in other areas. Hence, it cannot be said that Turkey has a pro-Russia stance. Zelensky’s recent visit to Istanbul is the recognition of a certain level of mutual trust. That said, given its strategic geopolitical location, it may not be possible for Turkey to sustain strong relations both with the West and Russia – especially as we see a growing focus on anti-circumvention in the region. For example, OFAC recently sanctioned a large number of businesses in Cyprus and Turkey for enabling prohibited Russia-related trade. 

Circumvention is unfortunately a widespread issue. Even certain EU Member States themselves are alleged to take a soft stance when it comes to, for example, the implementation of the EU embargo on Russian oil – likewise drawing U.S. ire. If all sanctions regimes are able to maintain robust enforcement internally, this would further incentivize third jurisdictions like Turkey or the UAE to ramp up their own domestic laws vis-à-vis Russia. In the context of Turkey, the Erdogan Government already has the economic motive to more decisively adopt and enforce the export controls and sanctions restrictions on Russia. However, for it to be brought there politically as well, Turkey’s unique role must be recognized and expectations should be managed accordingly.

Ultimately, in the period leading up to the 2024 elections, appealing to Western investment, Turkey will likely adopt a trend of further enforcement against Russia – albeit incrementally than overnight.

Tan Albayrak is an international trade and national security lawyer at law firm Reed Smith.

Top image: The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge over the Bosporus (file image courtesy Alexxx Malev / CC BY SA 3.0)

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.