How long can Russia maintain its sanctions against Turkey?

With the strength of Russia’s economy far from certain, steps against Turkey could cause more harm than good.

November 30, 2015 20:14
4 minute read.

A radar picture shows activities of the downed Russian warplane on the Turkish-Syrian border, November 24, 2015 in this handout photo provided by Turkish Interior Ministry. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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By: Robert Swift/The Media Line

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric towards Turkey has been harsh and assertive since the downing of a Russian combat jet on the Turkish-Syrian border on November 24th. The tension follows the shooting of a Russian SU-24 bomber intercepted by a Turkish F-16 fighter when it allegedly crossed into Turkish airspace while engaged in attacks against Syrian rebel positions close to Turkey. On Saturday, the Russian leader backed up his words with a raft of economic sanctions. Yet Russia, that is struggling under the weight of American and European sanctions, may not have economic resilience to apply such pressure to Turkey, a NATO member.

Putin’s decree bans charter flights between the two countries and has halted the work of Russian tour operators, who usually make a brisk business providing sunny holidays for middle-class Russians seeking respite from the long Russian winter. In addition, the declaration imposes immediate restrictions on Russian-Turkish commerce, including the fresh fruit and vegetables Russians crave, which Putin said would be replaced by Israeli, Iranian and Moroccan goods. He also cancelled a visa waiver for Turks, obliging them to file formal requests.

Turkish-Russian commerce is worth an estimated $31 billion annually, with Russian wheat and gas and Turkish agricultural products making up the bulk.

According to Jennifer Shkabatur, a lecturer at the Inter Disciplinary Center in Herzylia, Israel, “Russian companies will suffer from the sanctions maybe even more than Turkish companies.” Turkey is the one of the single largest customers of Russian natural gas, and serves as a crucial link in the key Russia-to-Europe pipeline, so it is unclear to what extent Putin will be able to withstand the losses in revenue to his own country. By imposing limits on Turkey’s purchase of Russian gas, Moscow could lose its ability to export to Europe, while Turkey could fill in its shortfall from Azerbaijan, Georgia and maybe even Israel, according to Shkabatur.

“(Economic) connections are so tight that any damage to Turkey will be even more damaging to Russia and it is much more isolated,” Shkabatur argued.

Russian jets have been bombing anti-government rebel positions since September, when Moscow surprised the world by deploying about 50 combat jets to air bases in Syria. Turkey has complained repeatedly about Russian violations of its airspace and harassment of its fighter jets patrolling the fractious border with Syria. Last week, in what many analysts considered a foreseeable consequence of two air forces posturing at each other, a Turkish Sidewinder air-to-air missile knocked the Russian jet out of the sky. The plane's two crewmen were able to eject but the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, was shot and killed by Turkmen fighters as his parachute carried him to earth. The second crewman, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, was rescue by a joint Russian and Syrian rescue operation.

A Russian marine was shot and killed during the recovery operation. The Turkmen fighters believed responsible for both Russian fatalities were themselves a target of the Russian bombing sorties.

The Russian economy has been battered by sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe after its annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine. At the same time the Russian economy has slowed due to the collapse of the price of oil. Both countries will be hurt by sanctions but Russia, unlike Turkey, has few good alternative markets to turn to.

Ankara on the other hand is being pushed into the arms of Europe and may benefit from financial compensations, Shkabatur concluded. The announcement on Sunday that European nations will grant Turkey $3.2 billion in aid in return for Ankara’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees from Syria, demonstrates that Turkey has options. Russia still has some cards to play, however.

Alexander Murinson, author of Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan and a researcher associated with the Begin-Sadat Center, explained that Russia used the downing of the aircraft as a pretext to increase its control of the skies over Syria. “This event played into Russian hands - now under a pretext of the protection of its operation against ISIS, Russia deployed its advanced air-defense system, the S-400,” Murinson told The Media Line.

Yet it remains unclear how far Russia will or can go in response to what it believes was an unprovoked attack on its aircraft while it flew inside Syrian airspace. Although it seems likely the Russian aircraft did cross the border as Turkey claims, the violation was limited and is not the sort of thing planes are normally shot down for, Murinson observed. He said the decision to fire on a Russian aircraft would have been made at the highest level, most likely by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The downing of the jet was likely a warning, a gesture from Erdogan, which went too far, Shkabatur agrees. “The way the plane was shot down was supposed to allow the pilots to escape and they did escape but then (one was) killed on the ground,” Shkabatur said. be entering its fifth year, will be produced.

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