December 16, 2020

IntelBrief: U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Turkey over Purchase of Russian Missile System

Military vehicles and equipment, parts of the S-400 air defense systems, are unloaded from a Russian transport aircraft, at Murted military airport in Ankara, Turkey (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The United States recently imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system.
  • The EU is also expected to respond to Turkey with sanctions in view of its aggressive energy exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • The US and EU seek to rein in Erdogan’s growing ambitions, while also curtailing Ankara’s continued drift toward Moscow and Putin.
  • Erdogan dismissed the severity of the sanctions, although Turkey’s economy is struggling, compounded by the impact of COVID-19.

Signs of a growing rift between NATO members emerged this week when the United States imposed sanctions on a number of Turkish entities in response to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Under a 2017 law, Congress can authorize sanctions against purchasers of weapons from blacklisted entities and countries. Just last week, with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in both chambers of Congress, the legislation made clear that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is a ‘sanctionable activity.’ The sanctions target a Turkish defense agency—Presidency of Defense Industries—and one of its leading executives, Ismail Demir. As a result of its purchase of the S-400, Turkey was ejected from NATO’s F-35 stealth jet fighter program. Specifically, the most recent sanctions are levied pursuant to Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and result from Turkey’s transactions with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s primary arms exporting entity.

These sanctions come on the heels of a similar move by the European Union, which is expected to impose sanctions on Turkey in view of its aggressive energy exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean. France, Cyprus, and Greece pushed hard for more severe sanctions, while Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands urged a more cautious approach. Greece and Cyprus lay claim to some of the waters where Turkey has moved ahead with energy exploration, waters that Athens and Nicosia claim as part of their exclusive economic zones, respectively. Greece has apparently pushed for an arms embargo against Turkey, while France has repeatedly clashed with Turkey over what French President Emmanuel Macron sees as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military adventurism. Turkey has intervened in Syria, Libya, and most recently, Nagorno-Karabakh. Under Erdogan, Turkey has sought to elevate its status and become a geopolitical heavyweight, working to increase its influence and access throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Erdogan dismissed the severity of sanctions, commenting that sanctions ‘wouldn’t be much of a concern.’ However, Turkey is facing a potential economic disaster as it tries to contain a currency crisis exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19. The Turkish lira hit a series of record lows throughout 2020, prompting widespread concern over complications carrying over into next year. Despite the sanctions, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusoglu declared that Turkey would not change its approach in the eastern Mediterranean. While the US and EU have used the sanctions to pressure Erdogan, both are wary of contributing further to Turkey’s economic distress, fearing the consequences of a deepening economic crisis in the country. Though Turkey repeatedly trades barbs with European countries, the EU has spent billions of euros to assist Ankara in dealing with its Syrian refugee population. Turkey remains a candidate for EU membership, although many question the likelihood of this progressing in the near future, if at all.

Turkey’s controversial decision to move forward with the S-400 missile system occurred even after the United States and other NATO members warned Turkey that such action was unacceptable. Turkey has downplayed any perceived risk that the S-400 would pose to U.S. installations in Turkey or any NATO systems. At a recent NATO summit, much of the focus was on working to ameliorate tensions between Turkey and other NATO members. Washington and Brussels are attempting a delicate balancing act—seeking to rein in Erdogan’s growing ambitions, while simultaneously curbing Ankara’s continued drift toward Moscow. Turkey’s gravitation toward the Kremlin is a not so subtle recognition that Ankara also believes it is rather unlikely that its efforts to join the EU will bear fruit anytime soon. Over the past several years, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have collaborated on several foreign and security policy initiatives, although they have also clashed in various theatres, including Syria and Libya. Another unique aspect of this deteriorating relationship is that the United States still maintains approximately 50 nuclear weapons at Incirlik air base in Turkey. Few, if any, comparable scenarios exist, in which the United States has moved to sanction a country where it also stores nuclear weapons.