Strategic Implications of US Sanctions on Turkey

US Turkey flags
Credit: Cherie Cullen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The conflict of interest between the US and Turkey stems from the former’s support of the People’s Protection Units – Kurdistan Workers Party (YPG-PKK) against ISIS, which the latter views as a separatist group. This led Turkey to the controversial purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system from Russia, which some analysts view as a political signal against the US. In response, the US removed Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet programme, in which Turkey is a key manufacturer of aircraft parts. Further, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defence industry, froze sales of sensitive components, and placed visa restrictions on key Turkish defence industry personnel. While US sanctions on Turkey are not expected to do significant damage to the Turkish economy, these have significant implications for NATO, Russia-Turkey relations, the Turkish Armed Forces, and Middle East security architecture.

Implications for NATO

Turkey joined NATO in 1952, viewing the latter as a bulwark against the USSR. Also, NATO viewed Turkey as a strategic partner, as it gave the former a forward presence in the Middle East. However, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 profoundly changed the relationship between Turkey and NATO. With the threat of a Soviet invasion gone, NATO became an organisation searching for a new role in the post-Soviet world. This also incentivised Turkey to unilaterally advance its security interests outside NATO. Despite that, Turkey remains a key NATO member in NATO’s strategy against terrorism and ballistic missile defence (BMD).

Turkey is at the forefront of NATO’s counter-terrorism efforts. It is the NATO member most affected by the ongoing Syrian Civil War, as refugees and fighting from Syria spill over to the Turkish border. Further, Turkey has become a transit country for terrorists crossing from the Middle East into Europe and vice versa.  Turkey has provided NATO infrastructure and platforms for combatting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and in turn NATO has supported Turkey by augmenting its air defences against attacks from Syria. Moreover, NATO has expressed concern over Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, and is moving to strengthen its BMD in response to that perceived threat. Turkey hosts a US BMD radar at Kürecik. This BMD site in Turkey is especially important, since it is the single point of failure for NATO’s BMD posture in the Middle East. 

US sanctions on Turkey can have significant impacts on NATO’s overall military posture. Turkey is the second-largest contributor of troops to NATO, after the US. In an extreme scenario, US sanctions can lead Turkey to withdrawing from NATO. This would not be the first time that a NATO member withdrew, as France did so in 1966, citing undue US and UK domination of the alliance. However, given the key role Turkey plays in NATO, this is an unlikely scenario. Moreover, NATO membership is one of the ways Turkey can maintain cooperation with Europe, following the suspension of its EU membership bid in 2019.

Implications for Russia-Turkey Relations

The Black Sea plays an important role in Russia-Turkey relations. A significant proportion of both countries’ maritime trade passes through that area. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 re-established its forward posture in the Black Sea, and its corresponding militarisation of the region are viewed as a potential threat by Turkey. The militarisation of the Black Sea also increases the chances of a Russia-NATO confrontation in the area. However, with improving Russia-Turkey bilateral ties, Turkey might be more willing to accommodate Russia in the Black Sea. Turkey can also increase its bilateral maritime security cooperation with Russia to defuse tensions and send a veiled message about its dissatisfaction with NATO and the US.  

US sanctions also have a significant impact on Russia-Turkey relations in the Caucasus. Despite French and US diplomatic efforts, Turkey used the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to establish its influence in the region by openly supporting Azerbaijan. It took the opportunity to assert itself as a key regional player in the Caucasus, independent of NATO. Russia may also take the complicated situation in the Caucasus to sidestep sanctions on its energy sector. The US has imposed sanctions on Nord Stream 2, an energy pipeline connecting Narva Bay in Russia to Greifswald in Germany. The Russian-brokered peace in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict included Turkish troops as part of the peacekeeping force. This may be interpreted as a Russian effort to build political goodwill with Turkey, with the goal of using the latter’s Ceyhan oil pipeline as an alternative energy export route to Europe. 

Implications for the Turkish Armed Forces

The Turkish Armed Forces will undoubtedly feel the effects of US sanctions. Turkey is one of the largest operators of the US-made F-16 fighter jet, with 245 units. As US sanctions have restricted Turkey’s access to spares and maintenance for its F-16 fleet, Turkey might end up having a significant capability gap in aerial force projection capabilities. 

With such difficulties, Turkey may be exploring drones as a substitute for manned fighter aircraft for aerial force projection. Turkey formerly relied on Israeli drones, but sought alternatives, as there were suspicions that Israel was sabotaging its drones to keep Turkey dependent for maintenance, and that the drones were transmitting information to Israeli intelligence. Turkey also turned to the US for drones, but the US turned Turkish requests down due to concerns that Turkey might use US drones against Israel. This has forced Turkey to be self-reliant for drone technology. The decisive impact Turkish drones had in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and export sales to Azerbaijan, Qatar, and Ukraine helped establish Turkey as a leader in drone technology.

US sanctions have also crippled some areas of Turkey’s defence industry. The sanctions have blocked the transfer of US-made attack helicopter engines to Turkey, jeopardising Turkish helicopter sales to client states such as Pakistan and the Philippines. In response to US sanctions on helicopter engines, Turkey has been developing an indigenous substitute. However, as helicopter engines are very complex and precisely-built machines, Turkey may still have to overcome certain challenges in precision machining, materials science, and quality assurance. 

Russia has also presented itself as an alternative partner for Turkey’s defence needs. The US refusal to sell Turkey the Patriot missile system led to the latter’s seeking for alternatives, eventually settling on the S-400. Apart from the S-400, Russia has offered Turkey its Su-35 fighter jet as a replacement for the US F-35. China is also positioning itself as an alternative defence partner for Turkey. Presently, Turkey is license-producing the Yildirim missile, which is a derivative of China’s B-611. As such, China is poised to be an alternative partner for expanding Turkey’s defence industry. 

Possible Trends

Turkey’s foreign policy may change to reflect a more independent strategic posture. It may reflect Turkey’s aims to be a great power with a sphere of influence spanning the Middle East, Balkans, and Caucasus. In connection with that, Turkey may pursue unilateral moves to secure its own interests in the regions. However, it is possible that Turkey will balance its foreign policy in such a way that it seeks to accomplish the most without further jeopardising its relationship with NATO and the US. 

Turkey’s foreign policy may change to reflect less constraints from NATO and the US. This may translate into more accommodating policies in dealing with emerging powers such as Russia and China. However, other NATO members might be wary of Turkey’s ambiguous relationship with Russia. 

Further, Turkey’s increasing strategic independence with its willingness to pursue its security interests unilaterally can intensify proxy conflicts with Saudi Arabia. Both countries are vying for regional influence, with Saudi Arabia wishing to maintain the status quo while Turkey seeks a regional order where it has more influence. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are at odds over the Muslim Brotherhood, with the former viewing it as a threat to the monarchy, and the latter supporting it. In addition, both countries are backing opposing sides in Libya and Sudan. It is likely that Saudi Arabia will attempt to counter Turkey’s unilateral attempts at changing the status quo, and this can potentially lead to more proxy conflicts in the Middle East, particularly in fragile states such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. 

Gabriel Honrada is an International Relations graduate student at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia on the Russian government scholarship. His research focuses on Indo-Pacific military affairs and Russia in the Indo-Pacific.

Daniyal Ranjbar is an International Relations graduate student at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. His research focuses on international sanctions and problems of sanctions.