Trump’s Turkey sanctions are all about the midterms — but may end up helping Russia 

  • The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions on a NATO ally have significant geopolitical ramifications, but stem from one domestic priority: the evangelical vote.
  • The sanctions announcement sends a powerful message to Ankara: that its alliance with the U.S. and NATO membership is far from sacrosanct.
  • Amid already fraying ties with the U.S., Turkey's warming relationship with Russia may only continue to deepen.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump as they make statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump as they make statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017.

The Donald Trump administration announced Thursday that it would impose sanctions on Turkey over its continued detention of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested in 2016 on charges of spying and involvement in a failed coup to overthrow the government, allegations he denies.

While the sanctions are not, in fact, a hammer blow to the economy and will only affect a few individuals, they send a powerful and potentially irreversible message to Ankara: that its alliance with the U.S. and NATO membership is far from sacrosanct.

And while the move could be seen as simply an escalation of simmering tensions between the two countries following fallouts over Syria policy and Turkey's controversial purchase of Russian weapons systems, the focus on the Brunson case signals domestic political strategy at play.

Fueling the evangelical vote

The U.S. is now less than 100 days from the November midterm elections, and Trump is working hard to galvanize his voter base in order to fend off Democratic wins in the House and Senate.

For many on the right, the Brunson case has become a rallying cry for the religious freedom of Christians around the world — something of high importance to the evangelical voter.

"It's pretty remarkable how far the Trump administration is willing to go — putting at jeopardy the relationship with a NATO ally over a preacher," said Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management. "It just shows the importance of the evangelical vote in the U.S. as it heads to midterms."

American Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson (C), who was charged with committing crimes, including spying for the PKK terror group and the Fetullah Terrorist Organization, in Izmir, Turkey on July 25, 2018. 
Evren Atalay | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
American Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson (C), who was charged with committing crimes, including spying for the PKK terror group and the Fetullah Terrorist Organization, in Izmir, Turkey on July 25, 2018. 

Ash pointed out that several other U.S. citizens have been detained in Turkey on the same grounds as Brunson, but have failed to become high-profile cases.

Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 election, and that support remains high. According to a March survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 75 percent of white evangelicals had a positive opinion of the president, while just 22 percent viewed him unfavorably — all despite the well-documented controversies that have colored Trump's time in office so far.

An economic 'descent into crisis'

While the sanctions themselves do not punish whole entities or prevent borrowing, like the U.S. penalties on Russia do, this is still bad news for Turkey, which saw its currency, the lira, hit a fresh low after the announcement.

The lira has lost more than 20 percent of its value against the dollar this year as the Turkish central bank fails to sufficiently raise interest rates to counter double-digit inflation, now at more than 15 percent.

Turkey's already-rocky economy is likely to take another blow due simply to further loss of investor confidence. If the countries do not find a solution, or President Recep Erdogan doubles down, as some analysts predict he will, the picture could become much messier.

"Normally, Turkey might be able to shrug off this kind of story; however, right now the Turkish economy is already in the terminal stages of a descent into crisis," said Marcus Chenevix, Middle East analyst at TS Lombard. "To say the least, things are fragile right now."

Geopolitical repercussions

Washington's move represents a further rupture between Turkey and the West, and will likely only strengthen warming relations between Ankara and U.S. adversaries in Moscow and Tehran.

"I don't think you can understate the geopolitical significance," said Ash. "The U.S. has decided to sanction a NATO ally — absolutely remarkable. It will inevitably push Turkey towards the Russian and Iranian orbit and I think even raises questions over Turkey's NATO membership."

Trump's frequent disparaging of his NATO allies and questioning of the 70-year-old alliance's merit highlights just how little weight he puts in the partnership with Turkey.

Experts predict the building animosity could help shore-up nationalist support for Erdogan. "The hope now is moderation prevails, but this move will likely only incense Erdogan and a commensurate response is already promised," Ash said.

Further escalation could see Turkey close the Incirlik airbase, from which the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Already, the U.S. military has sharply reduced combat operations at the base due to the countries' deteriorating relations. Ankara could also limit cooperation with the U.S. in Syria, Iraq and potentially Iran.

But while the Turkish government will likely make a show of developing new ties with Russia or China, "in reality, (it) will be negotiating feverishly to maintain ties to the EU and U.S." said Chenevix. "In terms of economics, there is no replacement to the EU and U.S., there is nowhere else to go."

Ankara's intransigence so far indicates its belief that its strategic NATO position guaranteed it leverage. According to Ash, it may be in for a rude awakening.

"Trump just reaffirmed, he does not care about NATO — it's expendable," he said. "It's the midterms, stupid."