Intel: Why Turkey is intent on proceeding with Russian arms deal

al-monitor A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar.

Jul 1, 2019

The first shipment of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system will arrive in Turkey “within one week or 10 days,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced yesterday, a day after President Donald Trump came to his defense on the volatile matter.

Why it matters: The delivery will be hard evidence that Turkey’s arms deal with Russia is going forward, paving the way for US sanctions against Ankara under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

However, Erdogan has been counting on his personal relations with Trump to shield Turkey from potential sanctions, and his American counterpart’s remarks June 29 showed why Erdogan may be holding out hope. President Trump struck a positive tone during their meeting in Osaka, Japan, saying that Erdogan’s government had been treated unfairly on this issue.

“He wasn’t allowed by the Obama administration to buy it until after he made a deal to buy other missiles," Trump said. "So he buys the other missiles and then all of sudden, they say, ‘Well, you can now buy our missiles.’ You can’t do business that way. It’s not good.”

Erdogan didn’t waste any time grasping the momentum. “The first shipment will be delivered maybe within one week or 10 days,” Erdogan said a day after the meeting with the US president. “I told Trump this clearly, so did Mr. Putin.”

What’s next: After the arrival of the shipment, the ball will be in the White House’s court. Two options are available if the US administration is aiming to maintain the reconciliatory position struck during the Osaka meeting: Trump can use his authority to waive sanctions, or he can sanction Turkey but opt for the least punitive ones.

Congress granted Trump a waiver authority on US sanctions for purchasing Russian weapons. However, as Al-Monitor reported in April, lawmakers intended for the exception to apply to American allies in Asia stepping away from Moscow's defense industry, instead of a NATO ally such as Turkey making its biggest purchase yet of Russian equipment. The US administration could still develop a national security finding in line with the waiver that indicates that penalties could harm the alliance between the two countries. Such a move would surely invite pushback from the Senate, where the CAATSA bill passed by a 98-2 margin two years ago.

The 2017 law calls on the White House to select at least five of 12 potential punishments against buyers of Russian arms, including sanctioning Turkish exports, cutting off loans from American financial institutions or directly slapping Turkish office-holders or ministers with sanctions, just as the Trump administration sanctioned two top Turkish ministers over US pastor Andrew Brunson's detention. 

Know more: Check out Ayla Jean Yackley’s latest for details on the Trump-Erdogan meeting. And read Jack Detsch’s story to learn the US Congress’ position on the matter. 

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