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Report

U.S. Lawmakers Move to Punish Turkey for Buying Russian Missile System

Congress stopped short of imposing sanctions but signaled it may act unilaterally if Trump does not.

The S-400 air defense system
The S-400 air defense system from Russia is activated for testing at Turkish Air Force's Murdet Air Base in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 25. Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers finalized a sweeping deal on the annual defense policy bill late Monday that, among other key provisions, would take steps to punish Turkey for its purchase of a controversial Russian missile system that Western officials say threatens NATO air defenses and the F-35 fighter jet.

The news comes as U.S. President Donald Trump continues to hold off imposing congressionally mandated sanctions in response to Ankara’s purchase of the S-400, which arrived in Turkey this summer and which the Turkish military recently began testing against U.S.-made F-16 fighters. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the administration must choose from a menu of options ranging from light to harsh sanctions if foreign partners make a significant purchase of Russian military equipment.

“The time for patience has long expired. It is time you applied the law,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a recent letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Failure to do so is sending a terrible signal to other countries that they can flout U.S. laws without consequence.”

U.S. officials continue to stress that Turkey must not be allowed to operate both the S-400 and the American-made F-35 fighter jet, for fear that Ankara will use the Russian system to learn secrets about the aircraft’s sensitive technology.

“We are not going to have the S-400 coexist with the F-35 in Turkey,” said Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command, on Dec. 10 at an event with reporters in Washington. 

In the agreement on the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump is expected to sign into law, House and Senate authorizers stopped short of unilaterally imposing sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase. But they prohibited the transfer of the F-35 to Turkey while Ankara has the missile system or any other Russian military equipment that could compromise the aircraft, a move that prevents the administration from easily reversing the Defense Department’s decision to kick Turkey out of the international F-35 program earlier this year.

One congressional staffer indicated that if the president does not soon impose sanctions, Congress may act unilaterally.

“If the Administration doesn’t do something soon on CAATSA, Congress will and it won’t be ‘calibrated,’” the staffer said.

The administration had floated a workaround that would involve Turkey agreeing to store and not operate the systems, potentially paving the way for Washington to readmit Ankara to the F-35 fighter jet program. No such agreement ever surfaced.

In the deal finalized this week, lawmakers called on the president once more to implement sanctions. They took the step of expressing a “Sense of Congress” that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 constitutes a “significant transaction” under CAATSA. The step is not legally binding, but lawmakers could move to make it law, the staffer said.

Lawmakers also authorized the Pentagon to use $30 million to store the six Turkish F-35s that Ankara bought and was previously using to train Turkish pilots at a U.S. Air Force base before Turkey’s suspension from the program, and $440 million to buy the aircraft outright.

In addition to the provisions on Turkey, the deal would also create Trump’s long-promised Space Force within the Air Force, but it dropped contentious restrictions on the border wall with Mexico, low-yield nuclear weapons, and the president’s authorization to wage war on Iran. It bars Trump from removing the United States from NATO and from withdrawing the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. 

Negotiations on the legislation this year were made unusually complex because Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate. Trump is expected to sign the bill into law. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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