Was Ankara using its Russian air-defense system to track a NATO ally?
It began on Monday with Greek press reports that claimed that Turkey had activated its Russian-made S-400 air defense system — and specifically to track a Hellenic Air Force F-16 returning from a multilateral exercise in August.
If the report is true — that is, if Ankara turned on the radar to track a U.S.-made jet piloted by another NATO ally — it would signal that Trump administration threats have done little to persuade Turkey to give up a weapon that has been a point of fierce contention.
The trouble is, nobody seems to know whether it actually happened.
The Pentagon has been silent on the episode. A State Department spokesperson would say only that U.S. officials are “aware of these reports.” And on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan pair of senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday demanding to know if the local press reports were true, and urging the administration to impose long-delayed sanctions that lawmakers say were required by law when Turkey acquired the system.
“Reports of this activation make clear that Turkey has no intention of reversing course and divesting of this system,” Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and James Lankford, R-Okla., wrote. “Turkey’s recent reported activation of the S-400 system to detect the U.S. F-16 underscores our grave concerns about Russia’s ability to access sensitive data.”
Ankara’s 2017 purchase of the S-400 ignited concerns that the sophisticated Russian air-defense system would send sensitive information about NATO aircraft and networks back to Moscow. Congress has been quietly holding up arms sales to Turkey since mid-2018 over the issue. After Turkey began to take S-400 deliveries began last year, the Trump administration booted Ankara from the F-35 program.
Turkey has used the anti-aircraft and anti-missile system before, in a test run that targeted one of its own F-16 jets — an episode that further incensed lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Ankara plans to test the system next week at a site in Sinop province on the Black Sea coast. There, the missile system, which has a 400-kilometer range, could watch aircraft over large parts of the sky where U.S. and Russian military aircraft are known to frequent. The article claims that Turkey “isn’t activating the batteries, but testing equipment as well as the readiness of Turkish personnel” — vague language that leaves open multiple possibilities.
But analysts inside and out of government are divided over how the United States is likely to respond to this latest provocation, if it is proven to be true. Turkey has already taken possession of the S-400 and is unlikely to give up the extremely expensive piece of hardware, analysts say. And although Congress has urged the imposition of sanctions on Ankara, President Donald Trump has so far been reluctant to levy them. It’s unclear whether this latest incident would change Washington’s calculus.
Under a 2017 law known in Washington by its acronym, CAATSA, the U.S. must impose sanctions on governments that conclude a major defense purchase from Russia.. Lawmakers insist that the S-400 deal meets that definition.
“If they're turning the S-400 on, they're probably using it in some way,” said Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “But use isn’t the criterion for CAATSA sanctions.
“The burden of proof is not to establish the ‘improper’ use — say, towards fellow NATO allies,” Karako said. “The CAATSA language is about taking delivery of arms from Russia.”
The State Department spokesman did not rule out the use of CAATSA.
“We continue to object strenuously to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system, and are deeply concerned with reports that Turkey is continuing its efforts to bring the S-400 into operation,” the State department spokesman said. “We continue to stress at the highest levels that the S-400 transaction remains a major obstacle in the bilateral relationship and at NATO, as well as a risk for potential CAATSA sanctions.”
The department is “confident that President Erdogan and his senior officials understand our position.”
Still, the alleged incident would suggest Ankara is moving ahead with its implementation of the system. An S-400 battery is made up of a command post, missile launchers, and a powerful radar that can spot and track multiple objects simultaneously from hundreds of miles away.
“Radars don't just sit and stare. In surveillance mode, they're casting about to see if anything pops up,” Karako said. “But when they find something, they're going to put more energy on the target and track it.”
For Turkey, the alleged episode is likely less about NATO and the United States than it is about its long-running dispute with Greece. Erdogan may also be banking on a muscular foreign policy posture to take Turks’ minds off the struggling Turkish economy and its increasingly autocratic leader. Over the summer, tempers have flared between the neighbors over access to gas reserves in the Mediterranean, heightening tensions over the divided island of Cyprus and the crossing of migrants from Turkey into Greece.
Pompeo visited Greece, Crete, and Cyprus in September, during which he explicitly backed Cyprus and Greece in their jurisdictional dispute over maritime rights.
“We remain deeply concerned by Turkey’s ongoing operations surveying for natural resources in areas over which Greece and Cyprus assert jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Republic of Cyprus has the right to exploit its natural resources, including the right to hydrocarbons found in its territorial sea and its economic – exclusive economic zone,” Pompeo said in prepared remarks on Sept. 12. “We also believe that the resources of Cyprus should be shared equitably among the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots communities.”
The U.S. relationship with Turkey has become increasingly strained over the past two years. Although the standoff over the S-400 has been the central issue, Erdogan’s October 2019 incursion into Syria also created a major rift between the two NATO allies. Some analysts and lawmakers have argued that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 shows it is moving away from the U.S. and the rest of NATO, and towards Russia — or, relatedly, that Russia is using existing fissures in the relationship to try to cleave Turkey away from NATO. Still others claim that Turkey is only doing what it has always done: make tactical and strategic decisions based on what it considered its best interests.
But inside the executive branch, officials are keenly aware of the cost of a deeper split with Turkey. The stakes include access to several key U.S. and NATO sites. Incirlik Air Base hosts American B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, and is a friendly jumping-off point into the Middle East. Turkey also controls the Bosphorus, which under a 1936 agreement means it controls naval access to and from the Black Sea.
Critics — including some lawmakers — say that the alleged use of the system is proof that the Trump administration has been too soft on Turkey.
“This is a far cry from maximum pressure, and from getting allies to do the right thing,” Karako said. “The price of the administration’s failure to impose sanctions has now become increasingly more apparent.”