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Russian ships sanctioned by US frequent Turkish ports, raising concerns of support for Moscow’s war efforts

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Russian cargo ships under US sanctions for transporting weapons and supplies have been making regular stops at Turkish ports since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, potentially bolstering Moscow’s broader military campaign, according to an exclusive report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The report, citing shipping records, reveals that the sanctioned Russian vessels have made over 100 stops at ports along Turkey’s coast since May 2022 and that these visits have continued in recent weeks. Some of the ships have undergone repairs or received services prohibited under US sanctions, which raises the possibility of Washington imposing sanctions on Turkish businesses for facilitating Russia’s circumvention of Western efforts to restrict its military support.

The WSJ quoted a senior official from the US Treasury Department as saying, “Russia is making every attempt to surreptitiously acquire material to supply its war efforts.” The extent to which sanctioned Russian commercial vessels have relied on Turkish ports has not been previously reported, the WSJ said.

The US has been pressuring countries, including Turkey, to sever Russia’s military supply chain, aiming to deprive President Vladimir Putin of fresh arms and munitions for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has utilized the conflict to expand Turkey’s influence in the Black Sea region. Erdoğan has increased trade with Russia, facilitated an agreement to transport Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea and even offered to facilitate peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.

The visits of Russian ships to Turkish ports could further strain relations between Ankara and Washington, especially as the US is currently seeking Turkey’s approval for Sweden’s potential membership in NATO. This request may be linked to a proposed $20 billion sale of new F-16 warplanes to Turkey, according to the WSJ report.

Alper Coşkun, a former director for international security affairs at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, talked to the WSJ on Turkey’s approach, stating, “Because of the rapport between Erdogan and Putin and the posture Turkey’s taking on Russia, Turkey doesn’t want to be seen to be very hard-nosed about these sanctions against Russia.”

The report says sanctioned vessels have made stops at approximately two dozen port facilities along Turkey’s Black Sea, Mediterranean and Sea of Marmara coastlines. Some of the ships have also made subsequent journeys to destinations such as Egypt, Syria and Iran, suggesting an ongoing trade in goods.

Neither the Russian nor the Turkish government responded to requests by the WSJ for comment regarding these port calls.

According to the WSJ report, Russia has been procuring military-related items such as steel, vehicle parts and electronics from Turkey since the start of the war, further fueling concerns in Washington. Moscow has turned to civilian cargo ships to transport military supplies, partially evading a ban imposed by Turkey on Russian and Ukrainian warships from entering the Black Sea under an international treaty governing the Turkish straits. Additionally, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan have restricted Russian military flights, limiting Moscow’s ability to move equipment and troops in and out of its Syrian bases.

According to the report, the usage of civilian ships by Russia to transport military supplies has become increasingly common. The US State and Treasury departments have identified and sanctioned these companies.

While some Turkish businesses and institutions have succumbed to US pressure to prevent Russia from bypassing sanctions, at least four sanctioned Russian ships have made port calls in Turkey since Erdoğan’s recent re-election, according to the WSJ report.

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