Turkey, a NATO Ally, Vows to Retaliate for US Sanctions Over Air Defense Deal with Russia

Patrick Goodenough | December 15, 2020 | 4:44am EST
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – The Turkish government reacted defiantly Monday to the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions against its defense industry, vowing to retaliate and giving no indication it would back down over the decision that prompted the measure – its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

Instead, it demanded that Washington reverse the move, arguing that imposing sanctions against a NATO ally was – in the words of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman Fahrettin Altun, “unreasonable, fruitless, and ultimately incompatible with the spirit of our partnership.”

Turkey’s foreign ministry pledged retaliation would be coming “in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.”

It did not elaborate, but when Senate legislation was marked up a year ago calling for sanctions over the S-400 purchase, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that should they be imposed Turkey could block U.S. access to a key air base (Incirlik), and a radar station (Kurecik) that is part of a NATO ballistic missile defense shield.

Altun charged on Monday that the sanctions decision was taken merely “to appease anti-Turkey lobbies,” expressing the hope that the U.S. “will reverse this grave mistake without delay.”

Many U.S. lawmakers across the aisle long ago lost patience with Erdogan, an autocratic Islamist whose regional adventurism and combative foreign policy stances have set off alarm bells in Western and regional capitals.

The fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, approved by the House and Senate last week, includes a provision compelling the administration to sanction Turkey over the S-400 system – within 30 days of it becoming law – under the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which targets “significant” financial transactions with Russia’s military sector.

President Trump has yet to sign the NDAA – in fact he has threatened to veto it over an unrelated matter – but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the CAATSA sanctions were going ahead.

“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 defense sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defense industry,” he said.

“Turkey nevertheless decided to move ahead with the procurement and testing of the S-400, despite the availability of alternative, NATO-interoperable systems to meet its defense requirements.”

Pompeo recalled that the decision had already cost Turkey its involvement in the global F-35 joint strike fighter program.

State Department officials said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the NDAA, but came after a lengthy deliberative process.

“We engaged in months and months of diplomacy with the Turkish Government at every level to help Turkey find an off-ramp,” Matthew Palmer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia, told reporters. “Imposing sanctions on a NATO ally is not something we take lightly.”

‘Complex, challenging’

Palmer described the relationship with Turkey as “complex” and “challenging,” but also “a relationship of consequence.”

“Of course Turkey is still a partner and a NATO ally,” he said. “But the acquisition of the S-400 system is, as we have made clear to Ankara, fundamentally inconsistent with its obligations as a NATO ally.”

A rocket is launched from a Russian S-400 air defense system in southern Russian during military exercises in September 2020. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)
A rocket is launched from a Russian S-400 air defense system in southern Russian during military exercises in September 2020. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite Pompeo’s assertion that Turkey could have bought “alternative, NATO-interoperable systems to meet its defense requirements,” Ankara continues to dispute this.

It accuses President Obama of refusing to sell Patriot missile defense systems to Turkey to meet its defense requirements – a charge Trump has himself also made.

(Talks over the potential Patriot purchase in fact floundered over Erdogan’s insistence on the deal including technology transfer rights to enable Turkey eventually to make the system itself. In 2013 he tried to increase his leverage by indicating he would instead buy a Chinese air defense missile system – from a U.S.-sanctioned Chinese state company – angering both the U.S. and NATO.)

Nonetheless, Turkey again had the opportunity to buy Patriots when the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency offered in December 2018 to sell them to Ankara – an offer it has not taken up.

Erdogan signed the $2.5 billion agreement with Moscow in April 2017. Components arrived in 2019 and the system was tested last October.

No other NATO member operates the S-400 system, which is designed to destroy hostile aircraft, drones, and missiles within a range of 250 miles and an altitude of up to 18 miles.

The sanctions announced on Monday target Turkey’s defense procurement agency SSB, its head, Ismail Demir, and three other senior officials. The four are subject to visa bans and freezes of any U.S.-based assets, while most U.S. export licenses for goods or technology transfers to SSB, as well as loans and credits by U.S. financial institutions, will be prohibited

“No decision taken abroad towards me or our institutions will change the stance of me or my team,” Demir tweeted on Monday. “It will not be able to hinder the Turkish defense industry in any way.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also condemned the U.S. decision. Russian news agencies quoted him as calling it “another manifestation of an arrogant attitude towards international law, a manifestation of illegitimate, unilateral coercive measures that the United States has been using for many years.”

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