U.S. Set to Sanction Turkey Over Russian Defense System

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
Military vehicles and equipment, parts of the S-400 air defense systems, are unloaded from a Russian transport aircraft, at Murted military airport in Ankara, Turkey, in 2019. (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

The United States is poised to impose sanctions on Turkey over its acquisition last year of Russian S-400 air defense systems, five sources including two U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday, a move likely to worsen already problematic ties between the two NATO allies.

The long-anticipated step, which is likely to infuriate Ankara and severely complicate relations with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, could be announced any day, sources said.

The sanctions would target Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries and its head, Ismail Demir, sources have said. They would be damaging but narrower than the severe scenarios some analysts have outlined.

The Turkish lira weakened as much as 1.4 percent following the news. U.S. sanctions could harm a Turkish economy struggling with a coronavirus-induced slowdown, double-digit inflation and badly depleted foreign reserves.

A senior Turkish official said sanctions would backfire and hurt ties between the two NATO members.

“Sanctions would not achieve a result but be counterproductive. They would harm relations,” the official said.

“Turkey is in favor of solving these problems with diplomacy and negotiations. We won’t accept one-sided impositions,” he said.

The decision will have repercussions far beyond Turkey, sending a message to U.S. partners around the world who might consider buying Russian military equipment and have been warned repeatedly about U.S. sanctions.

Turkey’s leader, President Tayyip Erdogan, had hoped to prove U.S. threats hollow, betting the relationship he developed with President Donald Trump would insulate Ankara from punitive U.S. action.

Having forged a working relationship with Erdogan, Trump long opposed U.S. sanctions against Turkey despite the advice of advisors. Officials in his administration internally recommended sanctions against Ankara in July 2019, when the Turkish government started taking delivery of the S-400s, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

But sanctions appeared likely even if Trump did not act, the sources said.

The final version of the $740 billion annual U.S. defense authorization legislation, which the Senate is expected to vote on as early as this week, would force Washington to impose sanctions within 30 days.

One source said the timing of the sanctions decision was in part designed to get ahead of the legislation’s passage.

Several sources said they were expecting the U.S. sanctions announcement on Friday but one said it could come any day and perhaps as soon as Thursday.

Still, the increasing U.S. pressure is not without risk. Washington does not want to push Erdogan even closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose goal is to weaken and divide the NATO alliance.

Russia delivered the ground-to-air S-400s last year and Turkey tested them as recently as October. Ankara said they would not be integrated into NATO systems and pose no threat, and has called for a joint working group on the issue.

But the United States maintained that the S-400 does pose a threat, and announced last year it was removing Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program over Ankara’s decision.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter jet is the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal and is used by NATO members and other U.S. allies.

The U.S. State Department could still change plans and widen or narrow the scope of planned sanctions against Turkey.

However, sources said the announcement of the sanctions in their current form was imminent.