The Trump administration imposed sanctions Monday on NATO ally Turkey’s main military weapons procurement agency as punishment for its purchase of a Russian-made missile defense system.
The sanctions were mandated under a 2017 law requiring them against any entity that engages in “significant transactions” with Russian defense or intelligence sectors.
The announcement came after Congress last week overwhelmingly passed the annual defense funding bill, which includes a provision ordering that the sanctions be imposed within 30 days. President Trump has threatened to veto the bill.
Lawmakers of both parties had criticized the administration for delaying the sanctions following Turkey’s $2.5 billion purchase of the S-400 system in 2019, inaction that some attributed to Trump’s disinclination to offend Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Senior State Department officials who briefed reporters denied that the administration’s hand was forced by passage of the defense measure. “Any decision to impose sanctions . . . requires a thorough, deliberative process” and had taken a long time to properly consider, said Matthew Palmer, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. “That’s particularly the case when we’re talking about a NATO ally, one that is deeply integrated into NATO supply chains.”
In a harshly worded statement, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry condemned the measures, which it called “completely senseless” and “unfair.” Turkey, it said, “will take the necessary steps against this decision, which will negatively affect our relationship,” and pledged to “retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.”
It called on the United States to reconsider and to “address this issue through dialogue and diplomacy.”
The sanctions, although lighter than what the law allows, include a ban on U.S. export licenses and authorizations to Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries and asset freezes and visa restrictions against the organization’s president and three other senior officials.
“I would in no way underestimate the importance of cutting off the main military procurement entity of a military ally from items coming from the U.S. defense industrial base,” said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. “I think this is a very significant, significant step.”
Both Palmer and Ford emphasized that, in addition to what Ford said was the desire to “send a strong signal” to Turkey and make its defense organization “clearly feel the consequences of its choice to be involved in this transaction,” the goal was also to punish Moscow and warn other countries not to deal with Russia.
Similar sanctions were applied to China when it purchased the same Russian system along with fighter aircraft in 2017 and 2018. A number of other countries, including India and Saudi Arabia, have also progressed toward purchases.
The long saga of Turkey and the Russian S-400s began with the civil war in neighboring Syria, as Russia and Iran became the leading backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his struggle to remain in power. With war on its lengthy southern border, Turkey argued that it needed a surface-to-air system that would allow it to shoot down approaching offensive aircraft and missiles.
Although NATO temporarily repositioned Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish border with Syria, they were eventually withdrawn, and Turkish negotiations with the United States to purchase its own Patriot systems stalled over disagreements on timing of delivery, cost and Turkish demands for technology transfer and co-production agreements.
Ironically, as Russian aircraft in Syria appeared to pose the main immediate threat to Turkey, Ankara decided to purchase the Russian defense system. The decision brought immediate protests from the United States and NATO, which charged that its deployment would compromise the security of the F-35, the newest U.S. joint strike fighter aircraft being deployed by the allies. Turkey was suspended from co-production agreements for the aircraft, and its own purchase of 100 planes was canceled.
“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 U.S. military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing the sanctions Monday.
After taking delivery of the missile system, Turkey deployed it for test firing in October.
In his statement, Pompeo urged Turkey “to resolve the S-400 problem immediately in coordination with the United States.”
Turkey, he said, remains “a valued ally and an important regional security partner for the United States.”
Although the measures announced stopped short of some of the harshest allowed under the legislation — known as CAATSA, for the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — the sanctions are likely to affect Turkey’s already faltering economy.
Turkey has suffered in the past from the “perception that U.S.-Turkey ties are not in good shape,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of “Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East.” For that reason, he said, “I think [Erdogan] wants a narrative that he is getting along with the U.S.”
It would be hard for the relationship between the NATO allies to get any worse. A long list of U.S. grievances includes Turkey’s military invasion of northern Syria, its resort to “hostage diplomacy” with U.S. citizens and employees of U.S. missions in Turkey, and its aggressive naval maneuvers over competing natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Pompeo visited Istanbul in November but failed to meet with any Turkish officials in what Ankara viewed as a public snub. The rapidly deteriorating state of the bilateral relationship was a “phenomenon I have not witnessed in more than two decades,” Cagaptay said.
Erdogan has remained publicly defiant — last week calling the then-pending sanctions “disrespectful” of a NATO ally — even as he called for greater cooperation with the United States. In what was seen as part of an effort to reset relations with the new Biden administration, Ankara also recently appointed a new ambassador to Washington and announced new legal and economic reforms that appeared aimed at improving investor confidence as well as relations with Western allies.
“Erdogan is like a shape-shifter: He becomes whatever an American president wants to see,” Cagaptay said. But it would take more than cosmetic changes to improve the relationship, he added, because “major differences remain.”