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Trump Can’t Stop Putin From Poaching U.S. Allies
The United States failed to stop Russia’s S-400 sale to Turkey despite having the tools to do so. Don’t be surprised if the Kremlin continues to use arms sales to extend its influence.
On July 17, the United States finally decided to suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program, a move made in retaliation for Turkey’s acceptance of the Russian-made S-400 missile system. The U.S. decision was a fitting culmination to a drawn-out saga, which may well poison U.S.-Turkish ties for years to come.
It also laid bare the Trump administration’s failure to effectively implement one of the key provisions of the landmark Russia sanctions law enacted in 2017, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Ultimately, the Trump administration’s own mixed signals contributed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calculation that he could proceed with the controversial acquisition without the risk of significant sanctions or damage to U.S.-Turkish ties.
A familiar foe is lurking behind the current row between the United States and Turkey, as Russia’s $2.5 billion sale will pay substantial dividends for Russian foreign policy and will undermine U.S. interests. Russia’s sale of the S-400 gives it leverage over Turkish foreign policy, drives a wedge between Washington and Ankara, gives Moscow a strategic foothold in a key NATO country, and complicates U.S. efforts to gain Turkish cooperation in Syria, Iran, and Venezuela.
Some of the blame lies with the Trump administration, whose reluctance to implement congressionally mandated Russia sanctions and confused rhetoric on Turkey gave Erdogan the confidence to proceed with the acquisition. While effective deterrence requires a credible threat of consequences—in this case, harsh sanctions—it also requires unambiguous communication and consistent diplomacy. The Trump administration fell short on all three counts, and its haphazard and unusually restrained signaling on Russia policy undermined its deterrence efforts.
Russia also played its cards well. Moscow responded to Turkey’s shootdown of a Russian fighter jet in 2015 first with sticks by cutting economic ties and then by offering Erdogan carrots with vocal support when the Turkish president felt most threatened after an attempted coup in July 2016. After the failed coup, Russian President Vladimir Putin gradually offered to restart dialogue and economic ties, with the S-400 deal agreed to by Putin and Erdogan in 2017 as the sweetener.
Putin knew the S-400 catered to multiple interests of a Turkish president who was consolidating power and growing wary of the United States, including providing a strong defense capability that could help Erdogan defend his regime against future threats, a lever to use against the United States to showcase Erdogan’s displeasure over worsening ties and perceived tacit U.S. support for the coup attempt, and a means of strengthening Turkey’s bargaining power with Washington over Syria and other regional issues.
Where Erdogan miscalculated was underestimating Washington’s reluctance to allow the most advanced aircraft in the world, the F-35 fighter jet, to be introduced into an environment where the S-400 could drastically undermine the F-35 and other U.S. assets already deployed throughout Turkey. He didn’t anticipate that Washington might cut Turkey out of the F-35 development program.
The F-35’s capabilities are a tightly guarded U.S. secret, shared only with the closest allies. Turkey’s deployment of an S-400 system, which would likely operate in close proximity to Turkish F-35s, would give the S-400 system the ability to gather intelligence on how the F-35 operates. That’s because the S-400 would likely need to be connected to several systems, such as a tactical data link called Link 16 (used by NATO) and Identification Friend or Foe systems, which would work to ensure the Turkish F-35s could fly near the Turkish S-400 system without being shot down.
With Russian nationals likely maintaining, supporting, or even operating the Turkish S-400 system, this could allow Russia the ability to gain intelligence on the F-35, which through their regular proximity to the S-400 system would also allow the Russian system to better understand the stealth characteristics of the F-35. Most experts admit the Turkish decision to procure the S-400 inevitably proved to be a conflict of interest and doomed Turkey’s ability to serve as a trusted partner on the F-35 program.
In the end, the Trump administration correctly understood that the F-35 had no place in Turkey if the S-400 was being operated there and acted appropriately by ending Turkey’s participation in the program. Turkey could not have it both ways; it could not be the “fox guarding the hen house” by acquiring an S-400 system that could conveniently take advantage of its operations in Turkey to spy on the F-35’s capabilities and vulnerabilities while also flying the plane.
Turkey’s acquisition, however, raises broader questions about the Trump administration’s ability to deter U.S. allies and partners from making decisions that run contrary to U.S. interests. Similar to the administration’s refusal to act against Saudi leadership after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, U.S. President Donald Trump has purposefully chosen to reject any sanctions against Turkey while trying instead to maintain cordial ties with Erdogan. To ensure Russia’s S-400 triumph in Turkey is not replicated elsewhere, the United States will need to be clearer and more targeted in its response to Turkey’s decision.
The U.S. Defense Department’s July 17 announcement that Turkey would no longer participate in the F-35 program was no surprise, yet it came far too late and was missing several key components. Indeed, while Russian planes landed day and night ferrying S-400 equipment into Turkey throughout July, U.S. officials remained largely silent on an appropriate response to Moscow’s actions.
This stems largely from the White House’s conflicted stance toward the Kremlin; its responses to Russian aggression have often been watered down by Trump’s strange reluctance to target Russia directly. Most glaring was the absence of the announcement of any sanctions against Turkey.
The sanctions on Russian defense sales in CAATSA are modeled on U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil sales. Instead of targeting Russia’s defense sector directly—the industry is already under heavy sanctions—CAATSA utilizes a tool called secondary sanctions, requiring the U.S. government to impose penalties on third parties that make significant transactions with Russia’s defense sector. At $2.5 billion, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system clearly meets that threshold.
Had the Trump administration been more deft in its implementation of CAATSA, it could have wielded the threat of sanctions more clearly and credibly to discourage Turkey from acquiring the S-400 system—a move that would have both benefited U.S. strategic interests and advanced one of the central goals of CAATSA: to constrain Russia’s defense sector.
Yet the Trump administration dithered. It never marshaled the combination of pressure and moral authority necessary to cajole Ankara into rejecting the S-400 system. Secondary sanctions worked against Iran’s oil sector during the Obama years because the administration successfully isolated Iran and drew a link between its oil sales and its nuclear program. By contrast, Trump has repeatedly praised Russia, undercutting the credibility of any threat of secondary sanctions on countries that buy Russian arms.
Turkey relied on its belief that Trump had a positive relationship with Erdogan and would never employ sanctions against a key U.S. ally. So far, this assumption has proved correct, as Trump has reportedly rejected the advice of some of his advisors to sanction Turkey and sent signals that he has no interest in punishing Turkey over the sale.
Trump has instead excused Erdogan and pinned the blame on the Obama administration, saying, “I don’t blame Turkey because there are a lot of circumstances and a lot of … problems that occurred during the Obama administration.” In so doing, the Trump administration not only saddled U.S.-Turkish relations with a weighty millstone; it also sent a signal to other would-be buyers of Russian materiel that they can proceed with minimal risk of sanctions if they make major purchases of Russian defense equipment.
The Trump administration risks effectively giving the Kremlin a green light to continue to use defense sales to U.S. allies and partners as a wedge issue around the globe. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and India are all in advanced discussions with Russia about purchasing the S-400 system, and they are watching closely to see how the Trump administration handles CAATSA sanctions as they evaluate the potential risks and benefits in pursuing Russian defense systems.
The White House has put itself in a no-win situation. If it refrains from imposing any sanctions on Turkey, it will further undermine CAATSA, reveal the emptiness of its threats, and draw the ire of Congress. But if it pursues aggressive sanctions, it will further poison U.S.-Turkish relations and only play into Moscow’s hands, which would then present itself as a savior by coming to Turkey’s aid.
Indeed, it came as no surprise that Russia immediately followed up its announcement of delivery of the S-400 system by stating it would offer Turkey a fighter aircraft, likely the Su-35, to replace the F-35. If such a transaction were to take place, it would be hard to imagine Turkey continuing to claim itself as interoperable with and a good-standing military ally of NATO. The steps Washington takes in the next few weeks will be critical to ensuring U.S. interests are not further undermined by Turkey’s and Russia’s actions.
Having failed to head off the sale, the least bad option now is to impose sanctions on Turkey that are purposefully limited in scope, fulfilling the obligations of CAATSA and preserving hope that the Trump administration can implement the law more effectively down the road.
Yet much of the damage has already been done. As with most arrows in the United States’ foreign-policy quiver, sanctions are more effective at altering future behavior than reversing past actions. By publicly threatening sanctions against buyers of Russian arms, CAATSA was designed to prevent transactions like Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 from ever taking place. In failing to implement the law effectively over the last two years, the Trump administration missed its opportunity to stop Turkey’s S-400 acquisition and has likely emboldened other countries to make similar deals with Russia.
Mark Simakovsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as chief of staff in the Europe/NATO Office at the U.S. Defense Department, served as Russia director in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy during the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and advised Defense Secretary Robert Gates throughout Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.