Why is the US Worried About Turkey’s Purchase of the Russian S-400 Defense System?

Turkey insists that it will not cancel the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense missile system despite recent sanctions imposed by the US. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently said the American crackdown on Turkey is “the gravest mistake.”

Turkey’s Defense

In an interview with Canal24, Cavusoglu vowed not to bow to the sanctions, saying the purchase is in line with Turkish defense regulations and claiming that the decision to buy the Russia-made weapon is because Turkey cannot produce its own defense system.

A hypothesis that the West’s defense systems could not tackle the Turkish Air Force during the failed coup in 2016 is credible according to some experts, although it needs further explanation.

The sanctions against Turkey came as no surprise, since Washington has a special restriction that results in sanctions on any countries purchasing weapons from Russia, Iran, and North Korea, called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The law was passed in 2017 under the Trump administration.

The politically-motivated regulation aims to counter Russia’s influence. In 2018, the US slapped sanctions on China for buying Russia’s S-400 system and Su-35 fighter jets.

Why is the S-400 System so Important?

America’s ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison stated in 2019 that Turkey would sacrifice a lot if it gets the S-400 system, citing data security as the primary concern. Turkey is the only NATO member that buys Russian air defense systems.

The S-400 system — or as NATO calls it the Growler — is a highly effective anti-ballistic weaponry system. It has capabilities of travelling at a maximum range of 400 kilometers and can be deployed in only five minutes according to the system’s manufacturer Almaz-Antey. Its competitor, America’s MIM-104 Patriot, has a range of just 177 kilometers in a single direction, whereas the S-400 operates in multiple directions.

In addition, the S-400 can spot and shoot down targets, including jets and drones up to 600 kilometers away according to a report in the India Times.

The S-400 can be described as one-size-fits-all weaponry, since it can be designed for short-range, medium-range, and long-range weapon systems, depending on how a user wants to set up with the system, explains Kevin Brand, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Which Other Countries Also Want the S-400 System?

Besides Turkey, India, China, Egypt, Algeria, and even Saudi Arabia—one of America’s closest allies—have also expressed their interest in purchasing the Russian air-defense system. In October 2018, India signed the S-400 purchasing deal worth US $5 billion, CNBC reported.

Plot Twist: Now Even Washington Wants the S-400

The US even seems to be somewhat contradicting itself after also discreetly expressing its interest in buying the S-400 system. Senate Majority Whip John Thun even considered correspondingly amending the 2021 National Defense Authorization Law that enables Washington to purchase war equipment through the US Army procurement budget.

Former Pentagon Officer Jim Towsend told Defensenews that Washington’s decision to buy S-400s is a smart way to kick Turkey out of the system, adding it would be better if such a move could force Turkey to turn back to buying American F-35s.

However, the CAATSA scheme is not generally applied to Washington’s closest allies as it will disrupt allies’ defense sovereignty, meaning that sanctions could put diplomatic ties at risk.

“The CAATSA sanctions are not designed to be punitive to a partner and ally that has got a sustainment issue or an operation or maintenance issue. We’re certainly not looking to disrupt that. Why? Well, we don’t want a partner’s sovereign defense capabilities to be degraded to put their readiness at risk,” Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs R Clark Cooper answered when asked about the U.S. would impose sanctions on India over their S-400 deal.

Turkey, India, and Egypt are among the countries that are standing up against American sanctions, since every country should have the right to bolster its defense by purchasing any military equipment it wishes.