In April 2017, Turkey purchased Russia’s high-level S-400 air defence system from Rosoboronexport (ROE) for $2.5 billion dollars. Russia delivered the mechanism to Turkey in July of 2019 despite warnings from its NATO ally, the United States, that the setup could be incompatible with other NATO defence systems and could put U.S. and NATO members’ security at risk. Disregarding these notices, Turkey began to test the system last October which prompted swift condemnations from the Pentagon. In response, Turkey was removed from the U.S. F-35 fighter jet training and delivery program. Turkey then refused to stall development, forcing the United States to enact strict economic sanctions Monday, December 12th.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “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 defence sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defence industry.” Turkey’s continued commitment to the use of the S-400 system left the U.S. “no alternative,” according to Christopher Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation.
Turkey has repeatedly asserted that it was forced into the purchase due to the Obama’s administration denial to sell it American Patriot missiles; in response to the sanctions, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised that “Turkey will take the necessary steps against this decision, which will inevitably affect our relations in a negative way and reciprocate in a way and time it sees fit.” This recent action clearly places the longstanding U.S.-Turkey relationship in danger and raises questions regarding how President-elect Joe Biden will respond to heightening tensions.
The U.S. government says that it was forced to impose sanctions under Section 231 of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The main purpose of this act is to monitor “high-value, sophisticated weapons systems,” while CAATSA 231 specifically serves to combat Russian defence and intelligence efforts. In the past, CAATSA has been used to sanction Iran, North Korea, and Russia, but, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, this is the first application directed towards a U.S. ally.
These regulations apply to Turkey’s Defense Industries (SBB) and its highest officials and include: “a prohibition on granting specific U.S. export licenses and authorizations for any goods or technology transferred to SSB; a prohibition on loans or credits by U.S. financial institutions to SSB totalling more than $10 million in any 12-month period; a ban on U.S. Export-Import Bank assistance for exports to SSB; [U.S opposition to any] loans benefitting SSB by international financial institutions; and imposition [sic] of full blocking sanctions and visa restrictions” for SSB’s president, vice president, head of Air Defense and Space, and Program Manager of Regional Air Defense Systems (Section 235). The New York Times reports that these “medium dose sanctions” could significantly harm Turkey’s defence industry and diplomatic efforts.
The S-400 system is rightfully concerning for NATO. According to Army Technology, the network can track 300 targets at once and engage up to 36 with a range of 400 km up to heights of 30 km. Additionally, this updated system has the ability to trace a variety of different aerial targets and attack them using a three-layered missile approach. This technology is concerning enough in the hands of Russia, but even more so as more countries express interest in purchasing the defensive system. Russia has already provided China with two units, and both Saudi Arabia and Qatar (another U.S. ally) are in discussions for the system.
The biggest concern in Turkey’s case has to do with its proximity to Russia. As a defensive system, S-400 was built to target aerial vehicles similar to the F-35 fighter jets used by the United States and its allies—Turkey currently owns about 100. Although according to the Washington Post the S-400 system is still unequipped to pose a threat to F-35s, the U.S. is concerned that the presence of both mechanisms together could allow Russia to gain further intelligence on NATO defence systems and make its own military too powerful; in a public statement, the White House stated that the “F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
Last summer, multiple senators sought solutions to Turkey’s purchase that could maintain a peaceful relationship with Turkey. According to Defense News, Republican Senator John Thune proposed an amendment which would allow the United States to purchase the S-400 system from Turkey to ensure that the technology did not reside there. Although this idea would distance Russia and its potential interference with NATO systems, it seems hypocritical if S-400 really does pose an overall threat to Western NATO defensive systems.
In the end, sanctions won. In June, President Erdogan told the Washington Post that he believed that his “special relationship” with President Trump would protect Turkey against any negative consequences: “I say this very openly and sincerely, our relations with Trump are at a place that I can call really good.” Although Trump has expressed views that the sanctions are unfair, the administration’s commitment to CAATSA and NATO defence forced it to overstep the president’s personal feelings for security concerns.
Some believe that America’s strict response to Turkey’s actions serves as an example to other allies who are looking to take similar steps, such as Qatar. Furthermore, although the United States has held a long-term presence in the Middle East, the recent surge in intelligence and defensive efforts by Eastern states may be evidence that U.S. influence is diminishing. By looking at Turkey and Russian defensive developments alongside Iran’s continued dismissal of nuclear limitations, it is becoming clear that global powers are inching ever closer to a potentially devastating military race in which the U.S. may not hold as much power as in the past.
Russia is beginning to take the lead in the global intelligence and defence sectors. According to the American Foreign Policy Council, although Russia’s capabilities were inferior to the United States following the Cold War, significant modernization efforts throughout the 21st century have elevated its status. Russia has also gained extensive training experience and testing throughout its efforts in Syria’s Civil War which gave it an opportunity to experiment with and revise new technologies. Today, although Russia’s military artillery still lags behind the U.S., it is rapidly increasing and adding a new threat to global security and hegemony.
Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its advanced AI and cybersecurity abilities throughout the past decade. Just this week, the U.S. government detected a long-term hacking effort which has been attributed to Russia, and the past two United States elections have been riddled with concerns over Russian interference. President Trump has always had an amicable relationship with President Vladimir Putin which may affect his willingness to fully protect American interests. As Trump prepares to leave office, however, many foreign powers and experts are expressing concern over how Joe Biden will respond to the increased tensions with Turkey, Russia, and even Iran.
The United States’ sanctions on Turkey raise questions about the success and longevity of NATO. President Trump has repeatedly expressed contempt for NATO due to the large amounts of financing that the U.S. provides, as well as his impression that it is no longer fulfilling its original goals. Although Trump never pulled the U.S. out of NATO as he threatened, he did leave the Open Skies Treaty which allowed twenty-six states to fly unarmed over other signatory’s territories to conduct military intelligence missions. Both this action as well as decreased support for NATO leaves the other 29 NATO allies in a difficult position in which they are more vulnerable to Russian manipulation or outside attacks—especially poorer or less developed countries.
As Biden prepares to be inaugurated next month, he inherits not only a complicated relationship with Turkey and Russia but also with NATO. Biden has expressed support for NATO and opposition to Trump’s positions, but moving forward in a safe yet agreeable manner will be incredibly difficult. On the one hand, NATO alliances must be strengthened and gain new resolve if they are to combat Russia as it continues to develop advanced technology in its defence and intelligence sectors. On the other hand, if the S-400 system truly poses a threat to NATO and Western defences, the U.S. must take a strong position and continue to send a warning to countries like Turkey to prevent more allies from following suit.
To do both of these things and maintain a favourable and safe relationship with all NATO allies will not be easy, and Biden is likely to face significant backlash regardless of his actions. If NATO is to continue to be effective, every country needs to recommit to collective efforts for peace and security and turn away from the ever-present allure of personal development and protection that may risk global safety.