By allowing illegal trade to the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and Crimea Turkey is undermining “both its own credibility and its trading partners’ security,” according to a report published in the Middle East Institute on Friday.
In his article, Yörük Işık, an Istanbul-based analyst of maritime activity on the Turkish Straits, began by outlining Turkey’s official policy to Ukraine and its continued vocal support for its territorial integrity, something that has sparked bitter responses from Russia, which occupies Ukraine’s Crimea region.
However, as Işık goes on to illustrate, “things are not as straightforward as they seem”.
Three ships from SYRIAMAR, the Syrian government’s official shipping line that is under U.S. Treasury sanctions, are “working almost exclusively out of Turkish ports”. From there, they transport construction material from Turkey to Crimea and the Abkhazia region, a Russian-controlled breakaway region from the Republic of Georgia, and bring back scrap metal or wheat.
“Although the Turkish Chamber of Shipping issued a clear directive that no ship may depart from Turkish ports to occupied ports or return to Turkey from them, there is a collective desire to ignore the directive, and the Turkish government seems unwilling to enforce it, despite promises to Ukrainian and Georgian leaders,” Işık wrote.
The use of Syrian ships for these activities is also peculiar. As the article notes, the state-run SYRIAMAR is making money by conducting trade through Turkey at the same time the Syrian Army is attacking rebels backed by Turkey.
“As a result, Turkish trade supports an army that the Turkish government is indirectly at war with,” Işık noted.
Even though Turkey hopes to cement closer defence ties with Ukraine, selling it drones and possibly purchasing jet engines from it, Ankara remains a middleman in illegal trade to Crimea.
“By allowing this illegal trade, Turkey undermines both its own credibility and its trading partners’ security,” Işık wrote. “Shipping goods not only help connect occupied zones to Russia, but trade also brings hard currency into these zones, which are outside the international banking system.”
This short-sightedness will also cost Turkey. While short-term gains will be made for Turkish companies, it will also help Russia cement its military presence in these occupied territories, giving it a bigger strategic footprint in the Black Sea. Moscow has already deployed anti-ship cruise missiles that could target ships across the entire central Black Sea.
“While Russia is unlikely to ever return to its original borders or accept the independence of the occupied countries, allowing its occupation to become permanent will change the military and commercial balance in the Black Sea for decades to come,” Işık wrote.
“And the country with the most to lose from that is Turkey.”