The last days, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo harshly blasted Turkey’s increasingly questionable role in the alliance. Furthermore, a year-and-a-half after Turkey first acquired Russia’s advanced S-400 missile air-defense systems, introducing deep cracks within the NATO alliance particularly over fears the Kremlin could gain vital intelligence on NATO systems like the Lockheed F-35 jets, he announced that the United States has finally implemented sanctions on Turkey.
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
NATO and Turkey out of synch…
In his short but heated exchange with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, during a NATO Ministerial teleconference, Pompeo reportedly criticized Turkey through language rarely if ever used with allies for its acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles over its allies’ strong opposition, for ongoing maritime disputes with Greece and Cyprus, for its support of the Tripoli government in Libya, and also for its recent material support for Azerbaijan in the recently-revived conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
That prompted further chiding of Turkey by allies in the meeting, including France, Greece and even tiny Luxembourg, as well as defiant counter-accusations from Cavusoglu, said the diplomats.
Pompeo, who leaves office in January as US President Donald Trump’s term ends, reportedly said that the military “deconfliction mechanism” agreed earlier this fall between Athens and Ankara is not working because of Turkey. If that was not enough, Pompeo also pressed Turkey to behave more like a true NATO alliance member, accusing the country of thwarting attempts to build unanimity for vital reforms.
A warning that Turkey underestimated, or even worse, ignored…
President Erdogan made the mistake to spin Pompeo’s comments as those of a US official hoping to make a 2024 Presidential bid, thus distancing himself at the last minute and possibly only for the record, from President Trump’s close to “hands-off” policy toward Turkey, except for those instances when active US intervention was legally required, such as the issue with strong accusations of Iran sanctions violations by Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank -that case may well be the source of interesting new revelations once President Trump leaves office.
Erdogan made also the grave mistake to underestimate the depth of anger within the US government over the Russian S-400 missile system acquisition, effectively endangering NATO security. Pompeo reportedly called this deal “…a gift to Russia” in his NATO remarks. The very visible and almost noisy ejection of Turkey from the F-35 fighter program as a consequence of the S-400 deal, with massive bipartisan congressional support, is one example of what it has already cost Ankara to provoke the US Government. In addition, Washington is not approving Turkish requests to purchase Patriot missiles. Allowing that the same F-35 aircraft to be procured by Greece on preferential terms may well be the next step, which will also be broadly supported in the Congress.
Therefore, it was not a big surprise that shortly after Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S would ban all export licenses and authorizations for the Turkish Defence Industries while issuing asset and visa restrictions against Ismail Demir, the body’s president, and other Turkish defence industry officials.
“Despite our warnings, Turkey moved ahead with its purchase and testing of the S-400 system from Russia. Today’s sanctions on Turkey’s SSB demonstrates the U.S. will fully implement CAATSA. We will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense sector,” Pompeo tweeted at the time of the announcement.
The CAATSA law was passed in 2017 largely to counter Russian interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, along with other measures targeting Iran and North Korea. CAATSA mandates secondary sanctions like those imposed on the SSB and its leadership as a means to deny Russia’s defence sector revenue by deterring the purchase of Russian military exports.
Pompeo urged Turkey to “…resolve the S-400 problem immediately” and that the U.S continued to see Turkey as a valued ally. It is for this reason that the U.S took so long to impose any CAATSA sanctions.
It is unknown at this time, if outgoing President Trump gave his permission, or whether accepted the move under pressure from the state bureaucracy.
In addition, Washington’s active support of the twin East Mediterranean coordination initiatives that have developed over the last years (Greece, Cyprus, Israel as well as Greece, Cyprus, Egypt) is the other massive loss for Turkey in recent years, and as these groupings accelerate work on tangible energy projects, could mean massive long term losses for Turkey both in regional influence and income.
President Erdogan has underestimated or, even worse ignored, the depth of mistrust official Washington has in his government and misjudged Washington’s willingness to take additional tough steps needed to eliminate Turkey’s options in foreign policy, as well as restrict the financial support needed if Turkey is to recover from the disastrous economic policies Erdogan has ordered.
From now on, he should not forget that the transition in Washington is underway and for a number of reasons mr. Pompeo was expressing the views of the State Department bureaucracy, which will be the primary source of the incoming Biden Administration’s new policy positions.
Pompeo vs Putin’s Russia…
Together with Turkey, Mike Pompeo accused Russia of trying to destabilize the Mediterranean, pointing to a series of actions in countries that include Greece and Cyprus. “Russia continues to threaten Mediterranean stability using a variety of techniques to spread disinformation, undermine national sovereignty, and sow chaos, conflict, and division within countries throughout the region,” he said.
In Greece, Russian diplomats were expelled from the country in 2018 for undermining the “Prespes agreement” and interfering in Greek Orthodox religious affairs, he said.
In Cyprus, wealthy Russians “…many with connections to the Kremlin have laundered billions of dollars…distorting their domestic markets and spreading corruption…”
“All of these actions clearly demonstrate that if anyone is playing political games and trying to stall progress in regional conflicts, it is Russia, which only acts to advance its own interests to the detriment of the entire region,” he concluded.
What Mike Pompeo had in mind…
Looking back at the course of events as they unfolded after the 2015 downing of the Russian jet by Turkey, Ankara appeared to cajole Russia with the purchase of S-400 missile defence system against NATO’s will, signing a deal for Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, building the natural gas pipeline TurkStream, and other ventures. Eurasianist segments of Turkish politics had been, after all, calling for such a pro-Russian turn for a long time.
At the same time, though, revisionist Turkey was hedging its bets, trying to scare the West with the prospect of a Russo-Turkish bloc taking shape and, thus, making the West yield to all other of Ankara’s demands.
It is not news that the Russian President Vladimir Putin is counting on Turkey to fuel divisions in NATO, despite Russia’s own differences with the country. Putin has always sought to weaken NATO, which makes sense since the primary function of that organisation is to act as a check on Russian influence and military power.
Putin has tolerated the assertiveness of his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy concerning regional conflicts in which both countries have substantial, opposing interests.
He is confident Turkey will remain a thorn in the side of its fellow NATO members and expects Erdogan’s bid to mend ties with incoming U.S. President Joe Biden to fail.
While Ankara has been telling Western partners that its growing footprint in the ex-Soviet arena and the Middle East is a bulwark against an expansionist Russia, that doesn’t mean Turkey’s on the same page with them.
Turkey and Russia have an ostensible economic and political partnership, however the two countries back opposing sides in various conflicts. Relations between Turkey and Russia are very tense right now, there’s competition and even an element of confrontation. Still, cooperation with Turkey is so important strategically that Russia’s ready to close its eyes to this.
As a concession to Turkey, Russia agreed to allow Turkish troops to remain in the area of Nagorno-Karabach to oversee the peace-process. This has now effectively given them a long-term presence in an area traditionally considered to be well within Russia’s sphere of military influence and power.
Vladimir Putin was forced to publicly admit that this is the new reality in their part of the world. With everything else going on in the world right now, this sort of story is easy to overlook. But it’s still a rather a remarkable development. To see Vladimir Putin come out during a televised interview and essentially shrug his shoulders and admit that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, is very much out of character for him.
But this development is probably a bit more complicated than it might look at first glance. It’s true that Russia seems to be conceding its de facto control of a neighboring territory, but Putin is actually getting something valuable in return for that concession. By cosying up to Ankara, Putin is driving even more of a wedge between Turkey and the United States, as well as the rest of the west and the NATO alliance.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been drifting in this direction for some time now and not really making any effort to hide it. While still technically maintaining his nation’s status as a NATO member and hosting key United States military facilities, Erdogan has cut deals with the Russians for the purchase of S-400 air defense missile systems that are not compatible with NATO hardware. Erdogan hasn’t really been an ally to the West in more than name only for several years now, and yet he’s somehow managed to eat his cake and have it also in this regard.
Given Turkey’s crucial location, adjacent to both Syria and Iran, Ankara holds a vital position for the West when dealing with any flareups in those countries. Losing military and diplomatic relations with Turkey entirely wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would make American and NATO military endeavours in that region far more complicated and logistically difficult.