Turkey could face US sanctions for S-400 purchase

Turkey could face US sanctions for S-400 purchase

The U.S. published on Jan. 30 a list of Russian politicians and oligarchs as part of a sanctions law called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). 

As Turkey’s agenda is currently dominated by the operation in Afrin, this has not attracted a lot of attention. Indeed, the publication of the list itself has no immediate implication for Turkey. But it is extremely significant in terms of Turkey–U.S. relations. The law was signed last August and has now gone into implementation, and this means serious trouble in the already strained U.S.-Turkey relations.

In August, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a new package of sanctions drafted by U.S. lawmakers. The bill aimed at punishing Russia for its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to sway it in Trump’s favor. There was a strong bipartisan support for it, which is why Trump chose not to veto it, despite his opposition, as the bill would have garnered enough support in Congress to override his veto.

In short, the law aims to penalize governments that buy military equipment from Moscow.

Following Trump’s signature, as of Sept. 29 the relevant departments were mandated to start working on the details of how the law would be implemented. In a recent briefing, the State Department said that up to today “we have spent a considerable amount of time and energy on engaging with partners, with allies, with private industry, and with countries around the world, explaining what [the law means].” It also said it had demarched “countries where we thought there could be potential sanctionable activity, explaining to them the consequences, and pushing them to stop potential deals that could run afoul of [the law].”

With its continued intention to buy Russian S-400 missiles, Turkey was definitely among the allies briefed and warned about the potential consequences of such a purchase.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Jan. 29 that the CAATSA “legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales.”

“Since the enactment of the ... legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions,” Nauert added.

It seems that Turkey is not among those countries that have given up on plans to purchase S-400s. On the contrary, on Sept. 12 it was made public that a contract had been signed between Ankara and Moscow, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying on the same day that a deposit had already been paid in the deal, thought to be worth $2.5 billion.

That of course has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Congress, which has of late become the most hostile institution in Washington regarding Turkey.

A leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee also wrote a letter to the Trump administration on Sept. 14 warning that Turkey’s S-400 deal violates the U.S. congressional sanctions against Russia that were signed into law in August.

Seeing the danger looming on the horizon, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been trying to explain and justify the purchase of the S-400s. Indeed, in order to avoid possible sanctions government officials have even spoken about the possibility of buying Patriot missile defense systems.

As a businessman, Trump may not be very interested in the interoperability problem posed within NATO by the Russian anti–missile system bought by Turkey. As is well known, he is not necessarily very fond of NATO anyway, and he could be lured by the potential of selling Patriot weapons to Turkey.

But the problem is that Trump does not call all the shots. The new legislation limits Trump’s ability to lift sanctions against Russia. Even if he would may personally be against sanctions on Turkey, his efforts would be overridden by a hostile Congress. The few friends of Turkey left in Congress were lost after the incidents in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in May 2017, in which visiting President Erdoğan’s security detail is accused of beating up demonstrators. Obviously, Erdoğan’s constant vocal criticism of U.S. policies have also not helped at all.

At a briefing in Washington, a State Department official said that Jan. 29 was not a deadline to impose sanctions but was actually a start date. If Turkey goes ahead with its decision to buy the S-400s then Jan. 29 will also mean a countdown toward U.S. sanctions on Turkey.

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