Prospective buyers for Russian S-400s proliferate as U.S. fails to sanction Turkey

Turkey appears adamant that it will activate its Russian-supplied S-400 missile systems in April. Russian media reported on Monday that 120 surface-to-air missiles for the systems had been delivered. The defence acquisition has been a source of tension between Turkey and the United States since Ankara began to take delivery of the missile systems in July.

Countries that buy major weapons systems like the S-400s from Russia risk falling foul of the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), but Turkey has so far escaped any measures , potentially emboldening other U.S. partners to consider buying Russian S-400s.

“Given the strong push from the U.S. Congress, CAATSA will be on the menu later this year, regardless of the White House’s attempts to shield the Erdoğan government from sanctions,” Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Ahval. “The timetable, however, will depend as much on the American political calendar as it will on the steps Ankara takes.”

A number of other Middle East countries have recently expressed interest in the advanced Russian air defence system, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt; all of which the United States maintains security relationships with. India, a country the United States sees as a crucial partner in the Asia-Pacific, also made an $800-million advance payment for five S-400 squadrons in November.

“Any time the U.S. appears to decide, particularly on a very public issue like Turkey's S-400 purchase, not to enforce sanctions that are on the books, it sends a message that the U.S. isn't going to enforce sanctions and encourages other countries to worry less about them,” Peter Harell, an economic statecraft expert at the Center for New American Security, told Ahval.

The United States did remove Turkey from the programme to build and operate F-35 jets due to concerns that the S-400s could gather critical intelligence on the advanced fighters’ stealth capabilities. But while the issue has significantly angered both parties in Congress, President Donald Trump has failed to implement sanctions mandated by CAATSA.

“If the U.S. isn't going to enforce, it would be better to just grant Turkey a formal waiver and develop a clear and uniform standard for when the U.S. will and when it will not enforce sanctions,” suggested Harell, who played an instrumental role in developing international sanctions at the U.S. State Department. “Simply not enforcing, especially after public statements that it would enforce the sanctions, undercuts U.S. credibility in a significant way.”

Frustrated by the lack of enforcement, the U.S. Congress included language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) telling the Trump administration it should impose sanctions on Turkey as required by CAATSA.

Numerous bills designed to sanction Turkey for buying S-400s, as well as its unilateral military action in northern Syria, have also been introduced in Congress that would require, rather than just prompt, the Trump administration to sanction Turkey.

The House overwhelmingly passed a sanctions package in October, but only one Senate bill has made any progress. The bipartisan Risch-Menendez bill passed out of committee last month and could be voted on soon.

Erdemir said that the ongoing S-400 spat between Turkey and the United States “continues to provide Erdoğan cover as he deflects attention away from the embarrassing aspects of his S-400 deal, which turned out to lack any transfer of technology, undermining the Turkish president’s talking points about why the Russian air defence system is preferable to U.S. or European alternatives.”

Although the United States is facing a growing list of partners interested in buying S-400s, addressing the challenge does not require inventing new sanctions regimes like those introduced in the U.S. Congress.

Harell said he thinks, “it is appropriate for the U.S. to impose CAATSA sanctions over the purchase to send a message that the S-400 purchase is deeply negative for the U.S.-Turkish alliance.”

The nature of implementation though matters as well. Harell said he hopes, “the U.S. will target the CAATSA sanctions appropriately by sanctioning individual officers involved in the purchase, and relevant parts of the Turkish defence establishment, rather than sanctioning the Turkish government as a whole.”

Erdemir agreed. “There seems to be bipartisan consensus in Washington that designations should be narrow, targeting the political figures and institutions found to be in breach of U.S. sanctions, and not hurt the Turkish public or the economy in general,” he said.

“Trump, given his personal rapport with Erdoğan, is likely to press for options on the lighter end of the sanctions menu,” Erdemir said.

While the U.S. has struggled to project coherent foreign policy, the S-400 issue emanating from Turkey may be a rare challenge it may address effectively.

“In recent months, outrage, and its cousin, virtue signalling, have made it harder and harder to have a conversation about U.S. foreign policy,” Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Policy. “At a time when the world and U.S. priorities in it are changing, this sad state of affairs is putting Americans at a disadvantage.”

Cook told Ahval that Turkey’s purchase of S-400s and its invasion of northeastern Syria were two of just “a handful of issues that are not subject to the current culture of outrage. People are angry over Turkey’s actions, but that anger is bipartisan.”

“It gives one a sense of how diminished Turkey has become, that in this era when virtually every issue is political and polarised, there is consensus about Turkey,” Cook said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.