26.04.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Not-So-Strange Saga of S-400, Turkey and the US


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation could perhaps have not faced any bigger bombshell than seeing one of their countries buying an advance missile-technology from its primary rival, Russia. The very reason why NATO was founded was to ‘contain the Russian threat’ (then Soviet Union) to Europe. Today, Turkey, NATO’s second biggest military, is closely aligned with Russia in Syria and is deepening its defence ties—something akin to shaking the very foundation of the military organisation; hence the not-so-strange state of affairs between Ankara and Washington. This has led to many in Washington to voice support for invoking the recently passed legislation called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), an act that has been specifically designed to target Russian arms industry, applying also to the countries/third parties that buy weapon/defence systems from Russia.

The question, therefore, now is: will the biggest military power of NATO, the U.S., sanction the second biggest military power of NATO, Turkey? And, if it does, how will it affect Turkey, a country that has deep economic ties in ‘the West’ and any imposition of sanctions will mean some serious economic problems for Erdogan.

The tense Ankara-Washington relations have already led to no-to-minimum chances of Turkey getting a waiver from Washington to buy Iranian oil. The U.S., has already announced today (April 22) that any country that fails to halt Iranian oil imports by May 2 will face U.S. sanctions, putting Turkey and many other countries on notice.

The oil-deficient Turkey is able to buy 60,000 barrels per day from its neighbour under the waiver. Before the sanctions, it was buying about 200,000 bpd, which means that after the imposition of sanctions, Turkey will face another oil-deficit of 60,000 bpd, a situation that might anger Ankara beyond reconciliation and further push it towards Eurasia i.e., Russia and China.

Besides it, if the U.S. imposes economic sanctions, Turkish currency is likely to collapse like it did previously. After shedding 30 percent of its value last year, the currency is down another 10 percent and markets remain on edge. Therefore, a really tough situation is facing Turkey where it wants to exercise its ‘sovereign right’ of buying whatever it wants from wherever it wants as against the institutional imperatives of the NATO. But the dilemma is bigger than it looks and is hardly one-sided.

The two-sided Dilemma

Turkey stands between buying S-400 system, and as a result, facing U.S. sanctions and not getting a waiver for buying Iranian oil. Turkish economy is so much integrated into the western economies and banking system that any US sanctions would inevitably have a crippling effect. And if there is one message out of Turkey’s recent local elections, it is that the state of the domestic economy could directly impact President Recep Erdogan’s political standing.

If it doesn’t buy S-400 system, it will end up becoming a satellite state for the U.S./NATO and fracture its newly built ties with Russia and its concerted push towards greater integration with Eurasia, the emerging centre of global economic productivity and investments.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, is also facing its own dilemmas. While the U.S. Congress is predominantly against allowing Turkey to buy S-400 system, the Trump administration has shown some ‘soft corner’ in the recent meeting held between the U.S. president and Turkey’s Finance Minister Berat Albyrak at the Oval Office in the White House on April 18, 2019. The talks were “more positive than expected” and the Americans expressed “a softer tone” than they take in public, a second senior Turkish official told the media.

Turkey is obviously pushing for a waiver to get a clean chit to buy S-400. Technically, the Trump administration can do this. In fact, for granting a waiver to Turkey in the present case, Trump by law would have to show that the S-400 purchase was not a “significant transaction”, and that it would not endanger the integrity of NATO or adversely affect US military operations. Trump will also have to convince the Congress that Turkey, even after this purchase, will take steps to progressively reduce Russian-made weapons from its arsenal. But the question is: will the Trump administration do this?

If there is one-way the U.S. can hope to somehow maintain a productive relation with Turkey after all has happened in Syria vis-à-vis Kurds and Turkish interest, it is through the U.S. finding a way to reconcile Turkey’s purchase of S-400 from Russian with the NATO’s own institutional standing.

In other words, the future of Ankara-Washington relations as well as NATO’s own integrity is tied to the sale-purchase of S-400. And, if the sale happens (which it will most likely), there will potentially be no backing away from a further deepening of Turkey’s relations with Russia. The world will keep changing and drifting.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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