Russian ban on flights to Turkey unlikely to change support for Ukraine - analyst

Russia’s ban on tourist flights to Turkey is unlikely to curtail its support for Ukraine or do lasting damage to the Turkish economy, said analyst Joanna Pritchett.

In a post published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday, Pritchett contends that Russia’s ban was a likely option taken in response to Turkey’s growing relationship with Ukraine. 

Russian authorities announced the ban on April 12, billing it as a safety measure given the rise in COVID-19 cases in Turkey. The prohibition will last until June 1 and cut into the usual tourist season when Russians tend to flock to Turkish beaches and resorts. However, the decision came only two days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Ukraine’s President Volodmyr Zelensky in Istanbul amidst rising tensions in the Donbass region.  

Pritchett compares the recent ban to the last one that happened in 2015 in response to the Turkish Air Force’s downing of a Russian SU-24 that Ankara claimed entered its airspace from Syria. President Vladimir Putin at the time called the incident a “stab in the back by the supporters of terrorists” and levied sanctions against Turkey. The ban only ended a year later after Erdogan apologised to Putin for the loss of the Russian jet. 

Using data from the Russian central bank, Pritchett calculated that Turkey lost up to $5.8 billion or a whole fifth of its expected tourism revenue in 2016. However, she writes that it came at the expense of Russian vacationers losing out on travel destinations with many alternatives to Turkey not receiving any influx of visitors in that period. 

“Approximately 3 million Russians who would have enjoyed a vacation in Turkey in 2016 appear to have lost the opportunity for any foreign holiday that year,” wrote Pritchett, adding that “revenue Turkey lost due to the sanctions also represents money Russians wanted to spend on a vacation but were prevented from doing so, a loss for those Russian citizens.”

She goes on to note that tourism losses never recovered to pre-2015 in large part because of the disruption to travel caused by COVID-19. 

Pritchett explains that Russia, because of its limited economic tools, is forced to rely on trade sanctions as its only options for retaliations. This in turn prevents it from having a particularly effective sanctions policy. 

“An ideal sanctions program should inflict real harm on the policy decision makers of the target country but do only limited harm to a small number of people in the country imposing them,” said Pritchett, adding that trade sanctions that hurt its own citizens made for poor choices.

She assesses that the return of many countries to some level of lockdown over COVID-19 deprived Russians of travel choices and Turkey remained one of the few, but most popular, destinations that remained. In addition, Turkey’s strategic reasons for supporting Ukraine - opposition to separatism, support for the Crimean Tatars and a growing defence relationship - are enough to sustain its support through Russia’s travel ban. 

“All in all, if Russia’s ban on flights to Turkey was meant to change Turkish policy, it seems misdirected at best and likely to cause an equal amount of harm to its own citizens,” said Pritchett.