Trump Administration To Bring Sanctions Upon Turkey

The Trump administration is reportedly moving forward with sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the SA-21 Growler (S-400 to amateurs. Professionals use the NATO designation) SAM systems. According to a US official the announcement will be made later today. Sanctions have long been threatened for the Turkish decision to buy the Russian air defense system, but the US was reluctant to pull the trigger. Instead, Turkey’s part in the F-35 Lightning II program was minimized. Further, it was prohibited from purchasing the advanced warplane as a further penalty instead.

Now the Trump administration is apparently ready to pull the trigger on sanctions, a move that will almost assuredly add more pressure to US-Turkey relations and affect the floundering Turkish economy.  The coming set of sanctions, according to administration sources, will be specific in its targeting. Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries, and its head are expected to bear the brunt. When news of possible sanctions started to circulate, the Turkish lira felt the effect and weakened by 1.4%. Turkey’s economy is already on the ropes now. The COVID-19 related slowdown, inflation, and depleted foreign reserves.

This move also puts the Biden administration in a position where it will almost certainly have to keep the pressure on Turkey through the coming months. That might not be an issue for the incoming president since he has spoke in the past about adopting a harder line with regards to Turkey and its leadership.

Talking Turkey: 3 August, 2020

Turkey’s reach has been exceeding its military, and diplomatic means in recent months. Erdogan’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Mediterranean, and Middle East is placing his nation in real danger of becoming overextended at some point in the not-too-distant future. The occupation of northern Syria, decisive intervention in Libya’s civil war, and seeking economic advantage in the natural gas-rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the better-known Turkish adventures of late. There are others going on in places like the Horn of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf region too. Erdogan has been assertively going after perceived threats and enemies to Turkey, while simultaneously prowling after economic interests that hold the prospect of a jackpot level payout down the road.

Unfortunately for Erdogan, there are two factors coming into play which threaten to hinder, or perhaps entirely derail Turkey’s ambitions at some point. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Turkey is running a very real danger of overextending itself in the near future. The Turkish armed forces are stretched thin. Since the failed coup in 2016 Turkey’s military has lost thousands of capable officers to show trials, and purges. Operations in Syria and Libya are costing billions of dollars, and Turkish troops are taking losses in both places. In short, the Turks cannot afford a new military commitment now or in the near future.

The second factor working against Turkey’s regional ambitions is the absence of a clear vision. Ankara’s moves certainly haven’t been guided by ideology, or political alliances on the international front. This is where Turkish actions, and ambitions become confounding as it is working with its allies and friends on some fronts, while directly opposed to them on others. Syria and Libya are two prime examples. Turkey’s military incursions into Syria were frowned upon by many of its NATO allies. However, many of those same nation-states fully support Turkey’s intervention in Libya. In recent years Ankara has deepened the relationship between Turkey and Russia at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West has skyrocketed. The Turks committed to buying SA-21 surface-to-air missiles from Russia which forced the United States, to cancel the sale of F-35 Lightnings to Turkey.

Compounding Turkey’s burgeoning issues on the foreign front is the current state of the Turkish economy. Turkey is working to prevent a currency crisis in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That topic will be touched on later in the week as we hopefully have the opportunity to expand the discussion on Turkey.

17 July Update: Turkey Removed From the F-35 Program

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The Turkish government had a weapons system procurement decision to make and it was a simple one at that: Turkey could purchase the Russian SA-21 (S-400 to amateurs) surface-to-air missile system, or remain in the F-35 Lightning II program. Ankara could not have both. The Trump administration made it clear that if Turkey decided to purchase and accept delivery of the SA-21 Growler it would bring about their immediate exclusion from the F-35 program.

Turkey made its choice and took delivery of the first SA-21 missiles and launchers this week. Today the US responded with the announcement that it is removing Turkey from the F-35 program because the “F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”.

Turkish President Erdogan had long assumed the Trump administration would relent and allow his nation to possess both the SA-21 system, and F-35 fighter planes. He was wrong, and now his country is on the outside looking in with regards to the US program.

Russia Observes the Fifth Anniversary of Its Crimean Annexation

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18 March, 2019 marked the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. On this date in 2014, Russian commandos blockaded Simferopol International Airport, military bases across the peninsula, and the Crimean parliament building. This action marked the beginning of Russia annexing Crimea, which eventually contributed to the start of fighting in Eastern Ukraine between Russian-supported separatists, and Ukrainian government forces. Moscow’s actions brought about a deep freeze in its relations with the West, and significantly altered the way Russia is perceived, and treated by the rest of the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the anniversary with a visit to the peninsula. He visited two powerplants currently under construction, and lauded efforts to improve the infrastructure of the Crimea. This is not the first improvement project Russia has undertaken in recent times. Last year a bridge connecting southern Russia to the Crimea was constructed. These are steps necessary to Crimea’s continued re-integration with Russia.

Behind the anniversary celebrations, there are other signs of re-integration taking place which go unmentioned by the world media. For months now, Russia has been undertaking a gradual military buildup of its forces on the Crimean peninsula. Additional batteries of SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles arrived at Russian airbases there. This deployment was followed by a staggered redeployment of Russian warplanes to Crimea. The buildup  continues, with the latest installment being Russian long range Tu-22M Backfire bombers. Moscow claims that the presence of Backfires is intended as a counter to the US deployment of its missile defense system in Romania.

There’s certainly a degree of truth attached to the reasoning. However, with the Ukrainian presidential election coming up at the end of the month, having Backfire bombers based so close to Ukrainian territory and airspace could also be perceived as an attempt by Russia to overtly affect the election.

Locking Down Syria

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Even before the ceasefire in Syria collapsed, Russia was already making preparations to reinforce its military contingent in Syria. Since the ceasefire’s premature end and the withdrawal of the US from bilateral talks on the Syrian conflict, Moscow has cast subtlety aside and is moving forward in Syria with little regard for the objections of the US government. Public and social media statements by members of the Russian government this week resembled taunts and with the general state of US-Russian relations rapidly deteriorating, it probably will not improve anytime in the near future.

Russia is moving additional forces and supplies to Syria. Additional Russian Navy warships have been seen transiting the Bosphorus on their way to the East Med, and another advanced SAM system is on its way to Syria. This one is the SA-23 Gladiator/Giant, known as the S-300VM in Russian military circles. It is an updated version of the SA-21 Growler (S-400) system that arrived in Syria last year. The Gladiator was designed to defend against and defeat theater ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and is also very effective against precision-guided munitions and perhaps even standoff jammers such as the US Navy’s EA-18 Growler.

On the surface it might seem the movement of additional advanced SAMs into Syria is textbook example of sabre rattling. That might be Moscow’s intent. However, the operational implications cannot be overlooked or ignored. With the incoming SA-23s, and the SA-21s and fighters already in place, Russia has the foundation for a very effective no-fly zone at its fingertips. At any given moment, Russia can choose to close off the skies of Syria to all aircraft except for its own and those of its Syrian allies. Such a no-fly zone would be invaluable in the event of a Syrian offensive against rebel groups around Aleppo or other parts of the nation. The US had made noise about targeting Syrian government forces and airbases with airstrikes to help alleviate the crisis in Aleppo. The presence of a potential Russian-enforced no-fly zone essentially kills the possibility of US/coalition airstrikes against government targets.

In a nutshell, what Russia is doing right now is locking down Syria tight. Moscow has gained control of the geopolitical and military situation in the country. Washington’s position in Syria has been largely minimized, due in large part to the mismanagement of the administration and the naïve, pie-in-the-sky expectations that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama adopted when Russia intervened in the conflict last year. Back in September of 2015 it was obvious that Russia was not interested in a partnership with the US either to stabilize Syria and/or combat ISIS. Putin sent Russian forces to Syria to ensure the survival and eventual victory of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Yet Obama and Kerry still went forward in the belief that Syria could be stabilized through US-Russian cooperation. The chances of that happening have evaporated, leaving Washington with two choices: do nothing further or respond to the Aleppo situation with airstrikes and run the risk of escalation and a wider conflict with Russia.