Analysis

In Missile Deal With Russia, Turkey Shows There’s No Need to Fear the United States

If Washington doesn’t impose sanctions on Ankara, it will be seen as a paper tiger and Europe will receive further justification for avoiding sanctions on Iran

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands during a bilateral meeting with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

On Friday, the Pentagon postponed “until further notice” and with no further explanation a press briefing on the arrival of the first shipment of Russian S-400 missiles in Turkey. The focus was to be the way the United States responds to such developments, including planned sanctions on Turkey. But the White House doesn’t have a precise position on this issue yet, especially regarding a country that has thumbed its nose at President Donald Trump’s demands.

The Pentagon led the opposition to the Russia-Turkey deal, highlighting the threats the sale may pose to the United States and its European allies. Trump totally backed the Pentagon, coming out with his own pointed tweets.

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Still, until the very end, he held intensive negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the possibility of Ankara canceling the $2.5 billion transaction. American offers, including the buying of U.S. Patriot missiles instead of the Russian ones, tight intelligence coordination and even tempting financial offers met with stiff Turkish opposition.

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And then, almost expectedly, Trump changed his tune. In his meeting late last month with Erdogan at the Osaka G-20 summit, he related to Erdogan as if Barack Obama had betrayed the Turkish president by refusing to sell him Patriot missiles. He even showed some understanding regarding the Russian deal, as if it had been made for a lack of choice. Erdogan took this as Washington’s blessing for the transaction, a commitment not to impose sanctions on Turkey.

The U.S. dilemma now is complicated. Sanctions on Turkey would define it as an adversary state according to the sanctions law passed by Congress two years ago. This would lead Turkey to withdraw completely from the circle of pro-Western (and pro-American) countries, thus joining Russia’s sphere of influence.

Not imposing sanctions, as dictated by the sanctions law, or not using the president's loophole of avoiding sanctions due to security interests, would show the Trump administration’s threats as hollow regarding Turkey, Iran and certain Arab states. The deal poses risks to NATO intelligence and possible damage to military cooperation between NATO and Turkey – a member of the organization – because of the need to load the new missiles with codes identifying NATO warplanes, thus serving Russia’s interests. Beyond these risks, Turkey is signalling to the entire world that the United States is a paper tiger not to be feared.

Turkey’s position forces European members of NATO to reexamine their relations with Ankara because the security damage to the organization relates directly to their defense and to the principle of cooperation between member states. This strategic principle obliges them to join Trump’s position and impose sanctions, if Washington takes this route. So far, other than sharp comments by NATO commanders, Europe has been silent, waiting to see what Trump does.

Even if Trump imposes sanctions, there’s no guarantee that European countries will follow suit, because European interests vis-à-vis Turkey are much more layered than Washington’s, including lucrative commercial interests, the passage of oil and natural gas through Turkey to Europe, and the blocking of migrant waves heading west. For Europe, these are existential interests no less important than the military cooperation of NATO partners.

At the same time, a soft American response would give European states further justification for not imposing sanctions on Iran, thus widening the rift between them and the United States. If Washington isn’t taking Turkey’s damage to NATO seriously, why should Europe upset the nuclear accord with Iran, which it sees as a guarantee for lifting a regional and international nuclear threat?

It’s true that there’s an essential difference between sanctions on Iran and on Turkey, especially when considering each of the two potential threats. But the sanctions on Iran have become the focus of a battle over image, also involving a tussle between the United States and Europe. Europe could use the Turkey issue as ammunition against American policies.

America’s reaction could also have implications on the military cooperation between Russia and Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The two have signed huge deals with Russia including the construction of nuclear reactors in Egypt for generating electricity, and the supply of advanced warplanes. There’s also a Saudi willingness to purchase S-400 missiles, with the development of an advanced military industry including the building of ballistic missiles, which China is helping with (and with Russia possibly joining later).

If Congress intends to limit the president’s freedom of action regarding Iran, with legislation to block the sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Arab states and certain Asian countries may conclude that it’s in their interest to reduce their dependence on American weapons and diversify their suppliers.

The arrival of the S-400 missiles in Turkey defines the deal as irreversible. The missiles will become operational within weeks, and the chances that they will be returned or put in storage are not high. Thus the question is what sanctions on Turkey would achieve.

In the past, Turkey has succumbed to Russian sanctions, imposed after the downing of a Russian warplane in 2015. Ankara also yielded to U.S. sanctions after it refused to release American priest Andrew Brunson, who was arrested after the 2016 coup attempt.

But in both cases, Turkey had to comply with easy conditions. This time it’s a deal worth billions of dollars involving the defining of Turkey’s regional strategy, as well as the uncompromising concerns about Erdogan’s prestige.