Syria conflict and the Russian sanctions imposed against Turkey, by Cristine Koehler Zanella

The balance of power in Syria has acquired a new impetus since September, 30th, when Russia joined forces with the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the rebels who seek to overthrow the government in Syria. The military participation of Russia in the Syrian conflict opened a window for two possible scenarios: (i) the moment could lead to a reopening of a more balanced diplomatic dialogue between the Syrian government, Russia and Iran, on the one hand, and the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on the other; or (ii) it could also give rise to an escalation of violence due to the presence of the United States and Russia in the same fighting scenario, but supporting different forces in the same conflict.

Movements were observed toward – or alerting on – both the aforementioned scenarios. Regarding the diplomatic aspect, Putin stated that he was willing to work with the United States in the region (Borger, 2015). His intention was to seize the opportunity to pursue a greater role in the international arena and try to overcome the isolation in which Russia has been plunged after the annexation of the Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. On the escalation of the conflict, the Elbe Group – formed by six American and six Russian retired general officers – issued a joint statement in October this year. In this document, the group recommended that Russia and NATO should renew contacts “given that combat operations in Syria are being conducted near the border of a NATO member state” (Ryan, 2015). The military-to-military dialogue would be necessary to avoid unexpected and unintended consequences arising from the miscommunication between the military forces acting so close to each other.

The Turkish shot down of a Russian military plane, on October, 24th, is the embodiment of those unexpected and unintended consequences. The military plane was shot down close to the Syrian border, and one of the Russian pilots was killed as a result.  Turkey alleged self-defense of its territory, and the country had already demanded the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria –which could have avoided the current tense situation in place. The Turkish government affirmed that the military jet had been warned ten times during five minutes that it was violating the country’s airspace (Embassy of Turkey to the United Nations, 2015). Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that as the plane continued its flight along the Turkish airspace, the country could not take another action than defending its territory. He also affirmed that “No Turkish prime minister or president will apologize … because of doing our duty” (Peralta, 2015). The downing of the Russian jet should also be seen in the context of Russian air strikes against Turkmen militias fighting the Assad government in that area. Turkey considers the Turkmen population in Syria and Iraq as kin, whose protection is seen as a foreign policy priority (Stubbs and Pamuk, 2015).

 Putin, on his turn, said that there was no violation of the Turkish airspace and that the action would have “serious consequences” to Turkey (Karadeniz e Kiselyova, 2015). The situation is sensitive because if Turkey declares that the Russians have committed an act of war, NATO will be dragged directly into the conflict on the basis of the collective defense mechanism linking its members. Despite the current race for ensuring positions in the international military front, neither Washington nor Moscow nor Turkey is prone to escalate the tensions further.

Following the incident, Erdogan tried to call Putin. The Russian president refused any talk and said that he would only answer upon some apologizing by Erdogan, which Turkey openly refused to do (Korsunskaya et al., 2015). So far, Russia has replied with an economic embargo and a flight ban against Turkey. What is the potential damage of these Russian unilateral sanctions?

On the Turkish side, the ban of all charter flights between the two countries affects especially the tourism sector. Furthermore, the embargo affects the Turkish fruits and vegetables exporters. Finally, new contracts for Turkish construction companies in Russia will receive more accurate analysis of the government, with an eventual ban of these companies from bidding for contracts in Russia (Peralta, 2015).

On the Russian side, closing the doors to another food supplier puts more inflationary pressure on the ruble. The Russian currency has already suffered severe depreciation since the second half of 2014, especially due to the fall in oil prices – a major source of Russian funding. In spite of some suspicions regarding a conspiracy between the USA and Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices low, it seems that the falling oil prices conceal other causes. Russia has been diplomatically cautious and avoided to accuse both countries of doing it without sufficient evidence (Dolgopolov et al., 2015). Another factor that can contribute to the ruble decreasing value relates to the Iranian oil market. Following the negotiations of the nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015, some expectation emerged that Iran could regain its status as an energy power soon after economic sanctions were lifted. If the lifting of sanctions against Iran is confirmed, it can also contribute to a drop of international oil prices.

Since March and April of 2014, and as a response to the annexation of Crimea-Sevastopol, economic sanctions have been imposed by the USA and the European Union against Russia. Russia retaliated, banning the imports of food from USA and EU. Ironically, at that time Turkey was one of the countries that stepped in as a supplier of fruits and vegetables to Russia (Oliver et all., 2014). In any case, the EU sanctions against Russia were another factor contributing to the confidence crisis in the Russian economy, which sums to undermine the value of the Russian currency. Moreover, these sanctions have been supported by NATO. On October, 12th, 2015, NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly approved Resolution 424, inviting the allied governments to maintain existing sanctions and to prepare to tighten the sanctions against Russia until the annexation of Crimea-Sevastopol comes to an end (Nato Parliamentary Assembly, 2015). In this context, there are no signs that the unilateral economic sanctions by both the USA and the EU against Russia will vanish in the short run, and that not even a partial pressure on Russian ruble will cease.

Sanction regimes usually open up opportunities for suppliers not affected by the restrictive measures being imposed. In the case of Russian sanctions against Turkey, Brazil and other food suppliers may find a stimulus to enter the Russian market. This has already happened with the European unilateral sanctions and the closure of the European market. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signaled her support to Russia in this regard, when she confirmed that Moscow could count on Brazil in overcoming the sanction effects during the VII BRICS Summit in July 2015 (Russian View on Global News, 2015). Domestic difficulties in Brazil and Russia could frustrate this opportunity, due to the lack of financial resources for developing the credit lines necessary to fuel international commercial activities.

Despite the economic losses on both sides, the most sensitive sector of economic relations between Russia and Turkey has been preserved. Russia is responsible for supplying around 58% of natural gas and 11% of oil to Turkey’s consumption (International Energy Agency, 2014; Santos, 2015). This sector, capable of inflicting serious damage to the Turkish economy, is not among those affected by the Russian unilateral sanctions. Regarding the energy market it is also to note that Russia is also dependent on Turkey as a major consumer for Russian gas and oil. If neither the sender nor the recipient of the sanctions is severely affected by the economic sanctions in place, these sanctions need to be understood in their strictly political content.

In July 2014, the BRICS leaders have spoken out against the political and unilateral use of economic sanctions. Their joint declaration said that “We condemn unilateral military interventions and economic sanctions in violation of international law and universally recognized norms of international relations”  (The Brics Post, 2014). One year later, during the VII BRICS Summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the press that “It was stated that such actions [unilateral sanctions] are detrimental to the international economic financial system and should be stopped,” (Sputnik News, 2015). Nonetheless, Putin is currently using sanctions in the same way that Russia had previously condemned. His decision can be seen as a necessary response to keep his internal authority, since it is based on the narrative of a strongman leadership. It can also be assessed as a necessary response to avoid international humiliation of having a Russian plane shot down – the first publicly acknowledged done by a NATO member since the 1950s.

Regardless of which political analysis is made, the Russian sanctions will certainly affect the quality of life of the population, but not on a level apt to substantially threaten Turkey. The diplomatic imbroglio surrounding the lifting of sanctions is what can complicate the picture in the region. Putin is unwilling to talk to Erdogan while the Turkish president does not apologize for what happened. Erdogan, on his side, refuses to apologize for an act of protecting the territorial integrity of his country.

Although there can be some doubt whether the airspace of Turkey has in fact been invaded, the Russian sanctions are a clear response to the military loss suffered by the country. However, this attitude reveals weaknesses in the coherence with the own Russian declaration regarding BRICS position against unilateral economic sanctions. It also reveals the complex situation created by the difficulty of accurately understanding the Turkish behavior that led to Russia to lift the sanctions.

Apparently the Russian conditions to lift the sanctions against Turkey should start with an Erdogan apology, but the absence of more specific requisites by the Russians put all the expectations regarding the progress of the situation on an act that can be seen as a humiliation by the Turkish government. Given the strongman leadership style adopted by both Erdogan and Putin, the lack of criteria required to lift the sanctions can inflict more harm than the sanctions’ economic effects themselves. While this entire situation between Russia and Turkey not disentangled, any unexpected situation – even if clearly unintended – can potentially evolve to a conflict of greater dimensions.


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Cristine Koehler Zanella is Doctor of Political Sciences (UGent, Belgium) and Doctor in “Estudos Estratégicos Internacionais” (UFRGS/Brazil) (

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