Upping the tensions between Ankara and Moscow following the downing of a Russian military jet by Turkey last week that left two Russian pilots dead, the Kremlin on Wednesday claimed it has "proof" that the president of Turkey and his family are directly benefiting from the sale of oil smuggled out of neighboring Syria by the Islamic State.
At a press conference featuring Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov on Wednesday, Russia pointed the figure directly at Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and displayed satellite images purporting to show a large caravan of oil tankers making their way from ISIS-controlled territory in Syria lining up at the Turkish border.
"Turkey is the main consumer of the oil stolen from its rightful owners, Syria and Iraq," said Antonov. "According to information we've received, the senior political leadership of the country—President Erdoğan and his family—are involved in this criminal business."
"Maybe I'm being too blunt," he continued, "but one can only entrust control over this thieving business to one's closest associates."
Antonov wondered out loud why Turkey's NATO allies have done so little to question or press Erdoğan on the role oil sales from Syria may be having on the effort to defeat ISIS.
"In the West, no one has asked questions about the fact that the Turkish president's son heads one of the biggest energy companies, or that his son has been appointed energy minister. What a marvelous family business!" he exclaimed. "The cynicism of the Turkish leadership knows no limits. Look what they're doing. They went into someone else's country, they are robbing it without compunction."
As Reuters notes, Russian officials have not yet specified "what direct evidence they had of the involvement of Erdoğan and his family, an allegation that the Turkish president has vehemently denied."
Writing at his blog last month, former U.S. State Department employee Peter Van Buren explained that in order to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, people must be willing to "follow the money" when it comes to oil sales. He explained:
One of the issues with selling oil, by anyone, including ISIS, is bringing the stuff to market. Oil must be taken from the ground using heavy equipment, possibly refined, stored, loaded into trucks or pipelines, moved somewhere and then sold into the worldwide market. Large amounts of money must be exchanged, and one to four million dollars a day is a lot of cash to deal with on a daily basis. It may be that some sort of electronic transactions that have somehow to date eluded the United States are involved.
Interestingly, The Guardian reported a U.S.-led raid on the compound housing the Islamic State’s chief financial officer produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members, including the ISIS officer responsible for directing the terror army’s oil and gas operations in Syria.
Turkey’s “open door policy,” in which it allowed its southern border to serve as an unofficial transit point in and out of Syria, has been said to be one of ISIS’ main routes for getting their oil to market. A Turkish apologist claimed the oil is moved only via small-diameter plastic irrigation pipes, and is thus hard to monitor.
In the wake of the downed aircraft last week and amid the ongoing dispute between the two nations over whether the incident was a planned "ambush" by Turkey—which Russia has claimed—or a justified defense of its airspace, as Turkey maintains, the ultimate fallout is still hard to discern.
As part of its response, the Russian Federation on Wednesday approved a list of further economic sanctions against Turkey, which includes blocking imports of Turkish goods, the suspension of bilateral trade and financial agreements, and imposed travel restrictions on Russians heading to Turkey and on Turkish citizens trying to enter Russia.
As the Guardian reports:
The economic measures taken against Turkey have been described as a “first step” by the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, with fruit and vegetable imports being banned, but leaving major joint energy schemes and many construction projects. Most painful for the Turkish economy will be the ban on charter flights between the countries and the foreign ministry’s advice that Russian citizens should not travel to Turkey. Last year, around 4.4 million Russians visited the country, many on package holidays.
While both sides have said they do not want to escalate the situation further, the abrasive personal styles of Putin and Erdoğan are not proving conducive to rapprochement.
Erdoğan tried to speak to Putin by telephone in the hours after the plane was shot down but the Russian president did not take his call. The Turkish leader also asked Putin for a meeting at the climate change summit in Paris on Monday, but was snubbed again. Putin will only speak to Erdoğan when he is ready to apologise, aides have said. This is something Erdoğan has pointedly refused to do.
According to media reports, Erdoğan reacted to the accusations and new sanctions on Wednesday by saying the charges were "slander" and that Russian leaders were being overly "emotional" in their response.
And while Putin has steadfastly refused to meet or speak with Erdoğan until he receives an apology, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that he would be willing to meet with his Turkish counterpart during an upcoming meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) taking place in Belgrade later this week.