December 16, 2020 | Policy Brief

CAATSA Sanctions Should Be Just First Step if Erdogan Does Not Change Course

December 16, 2020 | Policy Brief

CAATSA Sanctions Should Be Just First Step if Erdogan Does Not Change Course

The United States imposed sanctions on Monday on NATO ally Turkey for its purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia. These long-overdue sanctions not only impose necessary costs on the government of Islamist strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but also send a clear message to other potential customers of Russian military hardware.

The Trump administration imposed the sanctions pursuant to Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which targets significant transactions with the Russian defense or intelligence sectors.

The sanctions announced this week include a ban on U.S. export licenses against Turkey’s defense procurement agency, the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB). The sanctions also impose visa restrictions and an asset freeze on four of SSB’s principal executive officers, including its president, Ismail Demir.

Although the sanctions do not target Turkey’s financial sector, global investors wary of Turkey’s increased political risk are likely to continue their ongoing exodus from Turkish bonds and equities.

This U.S. action marks the first time Washington has imposed CAATSA sanctions against a NATO member state. Yet Ankara, by purchasing an air defense system from the leading threat to the alliance, has hardly been acting like a NATO ally.

Turkey signed the S-400 deal with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms export entity, in September 2017 and received the first two batteries in July and September of 2019. On October 16, 2020, despite repeated requests and warnings from Washington, Turkey conducted a live-fire test, showing remarkable disregard for the concerns of Washington and Brussels.

Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 almost resulted in the co-location of the system with F-35 aircraft that Ankara was set to acquire from the United States, potentially enabling Russia and other adversaries to gain valuable intelligence helpful for shooting down F-35s flown by Americans and their allies. To prevent this from happening, the United States canceled the training of Turkish F-35 pilots in June 2019 and removed Ankara from the F-35 program one month later.

Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400 also creates serious problems related to the integration of Turkey into NATO air defense systems – potentially resulting in fratricide against NATO pilots.

Turkey was once a pro-Western bulwark on NATO’s southeastern flank. But under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has drifted away from the alliance toward Moscow, increasingly undermining regional stability and the interests of the United States and NATO.

Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 is just one part of this larger troubling trend. As described in a major new report by FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power, Ankara has also engaged in “gunboat diplomacy to challenge maritime borders, proxy warfare in Libya, weaponization of migrants, [and] patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.”

Accordingly, there is growing bipartisan frustration with Turkey in Washington. Congressional leaders ensured the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 Conference Report included a provision requiring the imposition of CAATSA sanctions on Turkey. After the Senate and House of Representatives passed the bill with veto-proof majorities, President Donald Trump acted on Monday to impose the sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on the same day that this move “sends a clear signal that the United States will fully implement CAATSA” and “will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors.”

That is a message likely to spark widespread attention, including in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and India – three countries either considering or procuring the S-400.

One hopes that the sanctions will encourage Ankara to reconsider its current course and once again become a NATO member in good standing. If not, Washington should take additional steps to raise the costs of Erdogan’s actions.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at FDD. For more analysis from Bradley, Aykan, CMPP, and the Turkey Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley and Aykan on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman and @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Military and Political Power Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy