On September 20, the Trump administration sanctioned a Chinese agency and its director for conducting significant transactions with Russia’s defense sector. The designations – imposed pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA) – specifically targeted China’s Equipment Development Department for its acquisition of Sukhoi-35 fighter jets and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. The move ratchets up tensions with both Russia and China, but also sends a message to Turkey, which signed a deal with Moscow in 2017 to acquire four-S-400 systems.
The Turkish transaction arguably poses a greater challenge to Western interests than the Chinese sale because of Turkey’s proximity to NATO assets and the S-400’s incompatibility with other NATO systems. Earlier this year, a top NATO general warned that S-400s in Turkey could give Moscow key intelligence about the Western alliance’s capabilities. As NATO General Petr Pavel warned, the fear is that “Russian experts will be sitting in a NATO ally and feeding a Russian system with NATO data.”
In testimony before Congress in April, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell warned Ankara that the purchase of the S-400 could lead to CAATSA sanctions. He subsequently noted that the sale could undermine U.S.-Turkish military cooperation, including Ankara’s participation in the F-35 program. “A decision on S-400 will qualitatively change the U.S.-Turkish relationship in a way that would be very difficult to repair,” he warned.
Nevertheless, for both military and domestic reasons, including deficiencies in Turkey’s air defenses and Erdogan’s personal security concerns in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears intent on the purchase. Already, the Turkish military has reportedly started constructing a site for the S-400s. The systems are scheduled for delivery in 2019.
Other U.S. allies have taken note. India recently approved a $5.43 billion deal to buy five S-400 systems, with a delivery date not expected until the end of 2020. Arab nations have also voiced interest, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which continue to negotiate with Moscow.
Under CAATSA, the president has waiver authority to exempt allies, such as India, from sanctions. However, ties with Ankara have been deteriorating over the last year, thanks to a high-profile sanctions-busting case that landed a Turkish banker in a New York prison, and Turkey’s recent practice of holding Americans hostage on bogus charges, presumably for political leverage.
If Washington decides to sanction Ankara, then there are clear targets for designation. For instance, it could sanction the Defence Industry Executive Committee and its president, Dr. Ismail Demir, for overseeing the purchase of the S-400 from Moscow. Indeed, CAATSA sanctions are not just for China. The legislation is an important tool to deter countries from conducting business with Russia’s defense sector.
Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations and Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @rolltidebmz.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.