US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over purchase of Russian S-400 air defence system

20 December 2020

On 14 December the United States imposed sanctions on NATO ally Turkey after the latter tested S-400 missile defence batteries it purchased from Russia. Washington says the S-400 technology could be used by Russia to covertly obtain classified details on the Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft and that it is incompatible with NATO systems. In July 2019 the United States removed Turkey from the F-35 programme and Ankara lost production work on the aircraft in March this year.

“The United States made clear to Turkey at the highest levels and on numerous occasions that its purchase of the S-400 system would endanger the security of US military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defence sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defence industry,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO, ranks fourth in contributions to NATO operations and fifth in NATO expenditures. Ankara insists that the S-400 would not be integrated into NATO systems and would not pose a threat to the alliance. It also says that it bought the S-400 batteries only because the United States blocked it from acquiring the Patriot missile defence system. Turkish officials said Ankara would “retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate”, leading to speculation that it might stop letting US forces use Incirlik air base, where US nuclear weapons are stored.

On the 15 December the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged the two allies to find a "positive solution", adding "I regret that we are in a situation where NATO allies have to impose sanctions on each other".

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 16 December asked: "What kind of alliance is this?”, adding “US sanctions aim to prevent Turkey’s developments in the defence sector and make the country dependent once again; this decision is an attack on Turkey's sovereign rights”. The US sanctions have been imposed on Turkey's Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) and its head Ismail Demir and were applied through the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which is designed to deter any country from agreeing military deals with Russia. This is the first time that the United States has deployed CAATSA legislation against a NATO partner.

Russia and Iran took the opportunity to side with Turkey on the issue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the US sanctions did nothing for the credibility of the US as a responsible participant in the international arena, including military-technical cooperation, while Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted: "US addiction to sanctions and contempt for international law at the full display again. We strongly condemn recent US sanctions against Turkey and stand with its people and government".

Turkey’s tilt towards authoritarianism and coercive diplomacy after 17 years with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm has unsettled several NATO members. Turkey is increasingly at odds with its NATO allies over many other issues in addition to the air defence system, including the armed conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. In the latter, despite NATO developing a military de-confliction mechanism between Greece and Turkey in October tensions in the region have continued. According to media reports there were some quite sharp exchanges between the US Secretary of State Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at the recent NATO Foreign Ministers meeting.

Ten days after the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, the EU leaders agreed to apply some limited sanctions against Turkish officials for violating Greek waters, but deferred any further actions (including possible imposition of trade tariffs or an arms embargo) until their March 2021 summit and pending consultations with the incoming Biden administration.

Three former Turkish Ambassadors to NATO called for “a healthy dose of reality” to be injected into this dispute, which “risks descending into a blame game in which only NATO’s opponents stand to gain”. They suggest that the S-400 issue could be satisfactorily resolved if Turkey were to make “a verifiable pledge within NATO not to activate the system and the US takes a decision in parallel to reverse its position on the exclusion of Turkey from the F35 programme and on the recently imposed sanctions”. They also suggest a complementary agreement within NATO “on the joint production of a missile defence system under a generous technology sharing agreement”.

Biden’s attitude towards Turkey remains to be seen, but for the time being the US sanctions threaten to have serious negative medium-term implications for Turkey's defence sector. Moreover, if positions continue to harden the potential for a Turkish exit from NATO may well become a real possibility.