ANKARA: The recent US announcement to impose export controls on several Turkish companies for allegedly doing business with Russia has stirred debate on the effectiveness of the sanctions and whether Ankara, with elections looming, should respond in some manner to protect its rising trade relations with Moscow.
This is the first time Washington has sanctioned Turkish companies for allegedly helping Russia evade sanctions. Last year, the Turkish branch of a Russian company, called MMK, which owned two steel facilities, was sanctioned by the US.
The US Commerce Department said on Wednesday it has imposed new export controls on 28 companies based in China, Turkiye and other countries for supplying Russia’s military and defense industries with US-origin items, which it deemed violated America’s sanctions regime.
The sanctioned companies include Azu International, a Turkiye-based electronics firm that was established in March 2022, shortly after the Ukraine invasion, and which allegedly shipped to Russia foreign-origin electronics technology, including computer chips.
Also on the list is Dexias Turkiye, based in Turkiye and headed by Alim Khazishmelovich Firov, which allegedly procured US-origin electronic components as an intermediary for Radioavtomatika, a Russian defense procurement firm.
Since February 2022, there have been more than 400 entities added to the list that intends to restrict “Russia’s ability to sustain, repair and resupply its weaponry,” the US Commerce Department said in February.
“As the Kremlin seeks ways around the expansive multilateral sanctions and export controls imposed on Russia for its war against Ukraine, the United States and our allies and partners will continue to disrupt evasion schemes that support Putin on the battlefield,” said Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson.
“Today’s action underscores our dedication to implementing the G7 commitment to impose severe costs on third-country actors who support Russia’s war.”
This move also coincides with the latest statement by James O’Brien, head of the US State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination, cautioning that Turkiye has pledged to ban the re-export of sanctioned Western goods to help Russia’s war efforts.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thinks this is just the beginning and tougher US measures against Turkiye firms may follow.
“In the upcoming period, US sanctions will target even harder several companies doing businesses with Russia,” he told Arab News.
“This is the policy of the Biden administration ahead of the elections in the US, that aims to deliver a foreign policy win and it requires these sanctions to really work,” he said.
“So far the US government followed the path of compliance going through companies. Maybe this latest move is doubling down these efforts,” Cagaptay added.
In line with this warning, Turkiye’s government recently provided Turkish companies in the ferrous and non-ferrous metals sector with a list of foreign goods that are prohibited from being sent to Russia. In addition, Ankara has also given verbal guarantees to the European Commission that sanctioned goods will not be transited to Russia from March 1, to comply with Western sanctions.
However, experts have cautioned about the negative impact on Turkiye, a NATO member, and its repercussions for the international community.
According to Cagaptay, the US government is also acting carefully and does not want to interfere with Turkiye’s economic stability and politics in these critical times.
“But this is the tip of iceberg. In the post-elections period, the US would require more stringent demands on Turkish companies to not trade with Russia, and that will definitely have an impact on Turkiye’s trade volume with Russia,” he said.
Russia is still one of Turkiye’s major partners, with trade rising last year when Turkiye was in desperate need of foreign exchange earnings because of the currency crisis.
Trade between Turkiye and Russia has increased since the Ukraine invasion despite Western sanctions, with hundreds of Russian companies having opened branches in Turkiye — a financial haven for Russians — to circumvent sanctions.
Trade volume between the two countries climbed to $68.2 billion last year, while in March, Turkiye’s exports to Russia increased by 285 percent to $1.1 billion.
Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul think tank EDAM, thinks the recently announced US sanctions on these Turkish companies is an indication that the sanctions regime adopted by Washington can also have consequences for a NATO ally like Turkiye.
“But we have to essentially contextualize this measure. All Turkish exports to Russia will not be affected by this measure,” he told Arab News.
“The sanctioned entities have been found in violation of US sanctions for a range of critical technology products. This is indeed the area of concern of US policymakers given that these products are seen to be helping the Russian war effort,” he said.
But at the same time, Ulgen added, this measure demonstrates that there is indeed a concern about the re-export of some critical technology products.
“This is where pressure is likely to be also sustained also on Turkiye, but for this specific range of products,” he said.
According to Ulgen, so far there has been a modus vivendi between Turkish and US authorities on the implementation of sanctions.
“Turkiye has been quite cautious in not crossing some critical red lines set by the sanctions regime,” he said.
“For instance, in the past, when there were clear complaints about the Russian Mir payment system where the Turkish banking system accepted transactions based on Russian credit cards, Turkiye ultimately withdrew from this system,” he said.
“There is a good collaboration between Turkish and US authorities regarding the sanctions and this will continue,” Ulgen added.
“I think both sides would not want to find themselves in a more confrontational environment which would hurt both political relations and also Turkiye’s economic interests,” Ulgen said.