The incoming Biden administration will have to contend with a NATO ally that has been sanctioned, a relationship that has been damaged and a geopolitical miscalculation with repercussions.
The US has announced CAATSA sanctions against Turkey over the purchase of the S-400 air-defence missiles. While the sanctions were seen as a ‘soft package’, in reality, they underline why US foreign policy is failing.
Although sanctions are a tool used to achieve a goal, it seems that for the US they have become the goal itself. By imposing sanctions, the US has not only weakened the Turkish-American alliance but also weakened Ukraine and gifted Russia with a tactical victory.
The Turkish reaction following the announcement of the sanctions was clear. On one hand, the Turkish authorities emphasised their commitment to decreasing the Turkish defence industry's dependence on foreign arms supplies. In recent years, Turkey’s dependence on foreign states for arms purchases decreased from around 80 percent to 30 percent. On the other hand, the Turkish administration vowed to retaliate.
In reality, the S-400 issue was resolvable, but it was the American side that showed zero willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with Turkey. Several Turkish proposals to work out the differences and find a solution to American concerns were rejected.
Despite a very public acknowledgement by US President Donald Trump that the US Senate's veto forced Turkey to buy the S-400, the US was not willing to engage positively with Turkey. Turkey had to safeguard its skies as a neighbour to some of the world's most dangerous conflicts, either through buying American systems, or others. The S-400 was Turkey’s last option.
However, it is what it is.
This decision will overshadow Turkey-US relations at the onset of the incoming Biden administration. While it was the US who was not willing to engage in constructive dialogue, now the next administration may find itself with less area to manoeuver in the arena.
The incoming Biden administration has to do many things and has to re-calculate several Trump foreign policy decisions. In this manner, the current sanctions may turn out to be a major obstacle for new policies where Turkey plays a significant role.
If Biden wants to establish his own foreign policy agenda and wants to succeed, he will be forced to find a resolution with Turkey. Backtracking from the current sanctions will be high on his agenda if he wants to strengthen the alliance, but in such a case, the US Senate may prove to be an obstacle. Ironically, it may turn out that the cost of sanctions will be higher for the US than they will be for Turkey.
Turkey has asserted its role in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Azerbaijan, the Gulf, Africa, the refugee issue with the EU, and the eastern Mediterranean. By poisoning relations with Turkey, the US will weaken its options in all these strategic spheres. The US is well aware of Turkey’s geopolitical importance and tried to ease the risks by imposing a ‘soft package’ – but this might not convince Turkey.
Sanctions, the only tool?
When the US Senate developed the CAATSA law, it envisioned it as a tool to punish Russia. After the illegal annexation of Crimea by Moscow, Washington responded with sanctions and the CAATSA law to counter Russia. American solidarity with Ukraine was important at that time, but currently, CAATSA has evolved into something different.
The US has found itself imposing sanctions without a coherent geopolitical vision. Through these sanctions, the US has not countered Russia, but gifted Putin a tactical victory. The second-biggest army in NATO is under sanctions by the US – opening the way for Russia to build stronger ties with Turkey.
Turkey has stopped Russia from bombing over 3 million civilians in Idlib, Syria. It has also prevented a military solution in Libya and enabled the political process. On top of that, Turkey has penetrated Russia’s sphere via its support to Azerbaijan. At a time when Turkey is singlehandedly confronting Russia on several battlefields, limiting Russian expansionism and protecting NATO's interests, these sanctions are counterproductive.
To put the paradox of US decisions more clearly; the US made up the CAATSA law to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Now on the same day sanctions were declared against Turkey, Turkey signed another defence deal with Ukraine that foresees joint ventures in drone and warship production.
The deal is a strategic move by Turkey to balance Russia in the Black Sea and to help Ukraine strengthen its position vis-a-vis Russia. Ismail Demir who signed this strategic deal has been put under sanctions by the US. In short, a law to defend Ukraine has ended up weakening Ukraine.
What if the credit limitations for Turkey's Presidency of Defense Industries prevent further cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine? Or, what if the ban of export licenses hinders further Turkish arms deals with Ukraine?
To conclude, the US has sanctioned Turkey just to sanction Turkey, without any geopolitical vision. It is a mystery what the US is expecting to gain by alienating Turkey, gifting Putin with a tactical victory, and torpedoing Ukrainian defence cooperation with Turkey.
Decision-makers in Washington have to ask themselves what it says about the Great Power of our time if it has only sanctions and other forms of punishment as foreign policy tools in its repertoire.
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