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Now Is the Time to Resolve the Turkey-US S-400 Dispute

April 27, 2022
Russia’s war against Ukraine and the resulting geopolitical risks have highlighted not only Turkey’s strategic value but also its need for security reassurance.

It has also crystallized dilemmas for Turkey and the United States when it comes to the S-400 crisis they have been in for a while.

Turkey has acquired S-400 air-defense systems from Russia “to satisfy an urgent need” but is not able to activate them or to replace them at a time when the geopolitical risk it is facing, and therefore its need for such a system, has increased due to the war.

Turkey’s stated reason for acquiring these was that it had an urgent need for an air-defense system that it could not satisfy through its NATO allies. It paid dearly for this decision. It was subjected to sanctions by the United States under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and removed from the F-35 program in which it was a buyer and a co-producer.

Almost three years have passed since Turkey received the first batch of S-400s and it has still not activated them due to concerns over further US sanctions. As a spillover effect, there is also stiff resistance in the US Congress to Turkey buying modernization kits for its F-16 fleet as well as new F-16 fighter jets.

The United States’ dilemma is preventing Turkey from upgrading its air defense at a time when it is encouraging all NATO allies to increase their defense spending and boost their deterrence capacity in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Turkey is not just any NATO ally; with the second-largest army and the second-largest F-16 fleet in the alliance, it is one of the most important ones in NATO’s southern flank. It controls the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Hindering Turkey in upgrading its air force is far from being the right move for responding to Russia’s aggression that has reached new heights with its invasion of Ukraine.

Hindering Turkey in upgrading its air force is far from being the right move for responding to Russia’s aggression.

A US-Turkey Strategic Mechanism was launched during Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s visit to Ankara on April 4, in line with the joint statement by President Joe Biden and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during their meeting in Rome in October 2021. This could be crucial not only for deepening cooperation on issues where there is agreement, but also for mitigating and managing the disputes between the two allies effectively. Resolving the S-400 crisis should be a priority of the strategic mechanism.

Eliminating the “highly unlikely” options may lead to an answer to how to solve the crisis. The United States is highly unlikely to accept Turkey’s possession of active S-400 systems. It will neither lift the CAATSA sanctions nor readmit Turkey into the F-35 program so long as the country keeps them. Congress is also highly unlikely to authorize the sale of new F-16s or of F-16 modernization kits under the current conditions. For its part, Turkey is highly unlikely to send the S-400s to a third country. Even if there is not a provision against this in the contract it signed with Russia, such a decision would not bode well for Erdoğan in an election year. He would appear malleable and the opposition would question why Turkey paid for those systems and became subjected to sanctions if it was just going to send them away.

This leaves the option of Turkey committing to keep the S-400s inactivated for a renewable specific period and allowing the United States to regularly monitor their status, in return for the suspension of the CAATSA sanctions and deploying a Patriot battery to meet the country’s immediate need for an air-defense system.

This leaves the option of Turkey committing to keep the S-400s inactivated for a renewable specific period and allowing the United States to regularly monitor their status, in return for the suspension of the CAATSA sanctions and deploying a Patriot battery to meet the country’s immediate need for an air-defense system. The State Department has already sent a letter to Congress saying that the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey would be in line with US national security interests and would also serve NATO’s long-term unity. Turkey’s commitment to keep the S-400s inactivated under US monitoring could be used by the Biden administration to persuade Congress to authorize the sale.

There are two main arguments against this idea. One is that the United States does not have Patriot batteries sitting around idly and therefore cannot deploy one in Turkey at this time. Under normal circumstances this argument could hold. However, given its proximity to Russia and Ukraine, there is a strong argument for making Turkey a priority in Patriot deployment, particularly if it commits to keeping its S-400s inactive. The second argument is that Turkey has paid for the S-400s and cannot just not use them. But it can—because that is what it is doing now anyway and will do in the foreseeable future, although there is no technical reason why it cannot activate the S-400s.

Such an agreement would help alleviate tensions between Turkey and the United States, make a common positive agenda possible, help build confidence between the two allies, and make it possible to find a comprehensive solution to the S-400 crisis in the future.