U.S. sanctions leave the door open for diplomacy with Turkey

American sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system from Russia was long expected, but not meant to close the door to resolving lingering differences.

On Dec. 14, the United States levied sanctions against Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) and several top officials for their role in acquiring the S-400 system. On the surface, these sanctions appear rather limited in their chosen targets and the impact they may have on the Turkish economy, but a more damaging blow may not have been the intention.

John Parachini, a senior international and defence researcher at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation think tank, said that the sanctions placed on Turkey are important but the more meaningful punishment in his view came already.

“Being removed from the F-35 (stealth fighter jet) programme will have implications, and that is something that occurred before the CAATSA sanctions were applied,” Parachini told Ahval in a podcast interview, referring to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. He said some of the CAATSA measures imposed were less important but taken together with removal from the F-35 programme, they reached a midpoint between symbolism and punitive action.

Under CAATSA, the U.S. government is provided a menu of twelve options for enforcing the law, which prohibits transactions with the Russian defence sector. Against Ankara, the SSB faces a prohibition on granting specific U.S. export licenses and authorisations for any goods or technology transferred to it and opposition to loans or credits from United States and international financial institutions.

These measures risk undermining Turkish plans for becoming self-sufficient in terms of defence production, something President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan previously hoped to achieve by 2023. Washington also deprived Turkey access to the highly advanced F-35 after planning to buy 100 warplanes that Turkish companies were set to make $12 billion in parts for.

“There are financial implications here in these sanctions as well as aspects with how they are implemented that may retard industrial development,” Parachini said. 

Turkey has rejected the U.S. sanctions as an unfair “decision” and promised to respond to the move. However, there were some signs that officials in Ankara, who have been preparing for over a year for the day sanctions hit, hinted the effect on diplomatic relations would be limited.

“We are NATO allies. As they themselves said, there is cooperation with Turkey in many areas. We and they expect this to continue," said SSB president İsmail Demir, who himself has been placed under CAATSA sanctions.

This attitude may come from the timing of the sanctions only a month before President-elect Joe Biden is set to enter the White House. Biden, though harsh on Turkey and Erdoğan in his campaign, represents a chance to restart relations with Ankara, and the sanctions may strengthen his hand in early dealings with it.

“How this matter gets resolved will be a topic of diplomatic discussion in the Biden administration; the Trump administration has left the door open for that to ensue,” Parachini said.

Until the sanctions are alleviated, Turkey is faced with the question of how it will continue to develop its arms sector, a task Parachini insists will be complicated for it to achieve on its own. Two particular factors he said will be particularly problematic if Turkey chooses to go it alone are the lack of alternative suppliers of military equipment and the large costs an independent industry may have on the civilian economy.

Purchasing the S-400 was framed as an act of frustration by Ankara over the U.S. refusal to provide the Patriot missile defence system with the necessary technology transferred. Ironically, sources told Russia’s TASS agency that Moscow too did not agree to share the S-400’s technology as part of the $2.5 billion deal.

According to Parachini, Western weapon systems and contracts may in some cases exceed costs of Russian ones, but they included other perks such as easier maintenance lines that keep down costs. Shifting to new partners, such as Russia or China, would increase the costs on the national economy.

“In the short run, Turkey will face trouble by trying to build up its indigenous capability because it takes time, it takes expertise,” Parachini said. This could be possible to achieve, but the ultimate question remains the size of costs needed to achieve this, he said.

Given these difficulties for both longer term costs to Turkish goals, it lends to an impression that the S-400 will not make up for these losses. The system is a sophisticated air defence platform capable of defeating a variety of threats, but it's been proven vulnerable by Turkey itself.

When Russian and Syrian military forces were advancing in the rebel bastion of Idlib province in February, under the cover of multiple air defence systems including the S-400, they were overwhelmed by a combination of Turkish attack drones and electronic warfare systems that suppressed enemy air defences. This combination played out well for Turkey against Russian-backed forces in eastern Libya and the disputed South Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Parachini cautioned that Turkey’s effectiveness as a drone power was impressive, but its success was compounded by an array of factors, namely the poor training and unsophisticated systems used by Russia’s chosen side. The main lesson Parachini said should be drawn from Turkey’s experiences is the importance of both drones as well as effective air defences.

“Turkey has developed some fairly sophisticated drones, and the new way of warfare is that you can use unmanned systems in large numbers to overwhelm even the best air defence systems,” Parachini said. “It is a very complicated new era in warfare.”