The Geopolitics of Secondary Sanctions: CAATSA & The Russian S-400

Rohan is an MA student studying Intelligence and International Security with an interest in the concept of collective security and the geopolitics of secondary sanctions. 

On Monday 25th November 2019, American-made F-16 fighter jets were shown flying over Ankara on Turkish media broadcasts. The flights were made to test the radar system of Turkey’s newly acquired missile defence battery, a Russian-made S-400 Triumf air defence system[1]. Erdogan’s decision to test the S-400 defies American sanctions to discourage international purchase and integration of Russian military hardware. US-Turkey tensions over the purchase are a microcosm of the wider geopolitical costs associated with unilaterally imposed American sanctions.



The extraterritorial reach of American law has long been utilised by Washington to deter, compel and coerce the behaviour of foreign actors towards compliance with US foreign policy interests. Despite publicised misgivings by the executive branch, a bipartisan initiative by Congress forced the President’s hand and on August 2nd, 2017 Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)[2]. Designed to implement punitive measures against Russia (alongside North Korea and Iran), CAATSA has been seen as a direct response to Moscow’s penetration of the 2016 US Election, activities in Ukraine, and aggressive cyber operations.


CAATSA lays out a flexible range of twelve sanctions and financial prohibitions available, including travel bans, property transaction and loan restrictions, export controls, and other specific barriers denying entry into the American financial system[3]. Whilst Russia (North Korea and Iran), remains the target of primary CAATSA sanctions, ‘secondary’ sanctions illustrated in Section 231 of the legislation have greatly exacerbated geopolitical tensions between the USA and its global partners and allies. The imposition of secondary sanctions automatically applies to persons engaging in ‘significant transactions with the intelligence or defence sectors’ of the Russian government[4]. The US Treasury Department has blacklisted a number of entities associated with the Russian intelligence and defence sectors, seeking to deter financial transactions such as Russian military hardware sales to other international actors[5].


The S-400

Russia exists as one of the world’s largest arms exporters, reporting around $15 billion in sales annually[6]. A large and increasingly contentious component of these sales is the Russian S-400 Triumf air defence system. Replacing old generation S-300 air defence systems, the S-400 Triumf is a mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) system capable of targeting aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles at extended ranges[7]. Hailed as one of the best defence systems ever made, the S-400 is understood by many as a close market competitor to the American-made Patriot system. Whilst the Patriot has more or less a captive market within US allies, the S-400 (and previous generation S-300) system is not reserved exclusively for close Moscow affiliates, marketed instead to a wide variety of governments[8].  Although the S-400 Triumf is still little tested in combat it seriously undercuts the cost of the Patriot system, coming in at $500 million compared to a hefty $1 billion price tag for a single Patriot PAC-2 unit[9].


The US slapped an inaugural set of secondary sanctions under CAATSA onto China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD) in September 2018, following the delivery of an S-400 Triumf battery alongside 10 Russian SU-25 fighter aircraft[10]. Although the move is unlikely to reverse Beijing’s decision to import Russian arms, the sanctions significantly inhibit China’s use of dollar denominated contracts to supply and enhance PLA capabilities[11]. Importantly, sanctions against China are not politically costly for the Trump administration against the backdrop of an ongoing trade war and strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific. The real problem occurs when CAATSA comes into discord with the foreign policy of nations allied or partnered with the USA.



Turkey has long served as a valuable partner to the United States, strategically located at the intersection between Europe and the Middle East. More recently, Ankara’s relationship with Washington come under strain, relying heavily on the personal relationship between Trump and Erdogan in order to smooth over an increasing number of misaligned interests. October’s Peace Spring offensive into Northern Syria brought Turkey into direct confrontation with US-backed Kurdish forces, prompting an (albeit unsuccessful) bilateral attempt by the House of Representatives to levy a sanctions package against Turkey[12]. Erdogan likewise has expressed his displeasure at the USA for providing refugee to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish President has repeatedly accused of orchestrating the 2016 failed coup against his regime[13].

Exacerbating the discord in US-Turkey relations has been Ankara’s decision to purchase the S-400 Triumf from Moscow. The $2.5 billion deal (which may cover the purchase of up to two S-400 regiments) has been under negotiation for almost three years, surviving repeated attempts by the US to scupper the sale. A standing American counteroffer to sell Patriot missile defence systems to Turkey has not been taken up by Ankara, presumably down to the higher cost, but also reflecting present difficulties associated with convincing members of Congress to allow the sale to go through[14]. November’s testing of S-400 Triumf radars has brought Turkey closer than ever to CAATSA secondary sanctions, which have been delayed so far.

Unsurprisingly, Turkish acquisition of the S-400 system is of much greater risk to US interests than a strategic competitor such as China. Turkey is a NATO member, possessing the second-largest standing army in the Alliance after the USA. Moreover, Ankara is co-developing the next generation of F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft alongside the US and other allied powers. Washington harbours fears that an operational S-400 system in Turkey could provide Moscow with a remote backdoor to spy on NATO assets, specifically the stealth capabilities of the F-35[15]. Additionally, should Turkey integrate the S-400 into the wider architecture of its air defence capabilities, the process would fuse a sensitive data link between the S-400 and NATO’s overall defence network, compromising sensitive Alliance communications and data. It is worth noting that multiple Russian S-300 air defence systems are already in operation in other NATO states, including Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia. Nevertheless, these states are not operating F-35s, and the S-300 is an older system which US knows well and could engage or spoof if necessary[16]. Despite repeated attempts by Ankara to assuage American concerns over Russian penetration, Washington remains unconvinced. Compromising classified features of NATO operational capabilities to Russian intelligence gathering naturally remains unacceptable to the US.

In July 2019, Turkey began receiving the first shipments of S-400 components. Washington subsequently suspended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 development project, froze the purchase of 100 next-gen F-35 fighter jets and withheld F-35 components for which Ankara had already paid[17]. Ankara’s exclusion from the F-35 development project will come at a serious cost to Turkish companies, who were set to produce $12 billion in parts for the F-35 programme[18]. Whilst CAATSA secondary sanctions are still only being threatened against Turkey, their imposition further risks damaging an already fragile economy recovering from a 2018 recession[19]. One senior US State Department official recently emphasised the USA’s commitment to CAATSA sanctions should Turkey fail to ‘destroy, return, or somehow get rid of’ S-400 batteries[20]. At present however, no sanctions have yet been authorised by the Trump administration.

Erdogan’s own calculations seem to rest on an assumption that American threats are either not credible, or that Trump’s apparent unwillingness to punish Turkey will dissuade Congress from applying secondary sanctions. Trump himself refused to openly back CAATSA when signing the legislation into law, accusing it of being ‘seriously flawed’, with unconstitutional provisions which allow Congress to infringe on executive foreign policy power[21]. With no sanctions forthcoming from Ankara’s recent incursion into Northern Syria, a case can be made that Erdogan has perceived a hesitation from the White House to punish Turkey. Discord between the President and Congress on how stringently to enforce CAATSA sanctions has endowed Erdogan with space to manoeuvre the S-400 purchase from Moscow.

Trump has the power to both delay and grant waivers for CAATSA secondary sanctions on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, provided that doing so is in the ‘vital national security interests of the United States’[22]. At present the issuing of a waiver for Turkey remains increasingly unlikely. Sanctions may have to be levied in order to illustrate American resoluteness to Ankara, signalling to Erdogan that he cannot afford to call the Trump administration’s bluff. Whether secondary sanctions succeed if imposed will remain to be seen and depend on the extent to which severe measures are chosen over moderate options. CAATSA sanctions may damage the Turkish economy enough to force the government to abandon the purchase and reconsider the Patriot offer. Still, November’s S-400 radar tests illustrate a firm desire to test the operational capabilities of the defence system, indicating Ankara’s commitment to enjoying the benefits of the acquisition.

Ankara has proven to be a difficult ally for Washington to manage. Conscious of Turkey’s geographical proximity to both NATO and Russia, Erdogan has been shrewd in asserting a strategic decision to reduce his dependence on any one power. Turkish interests in Syria for instance necessitate keeping Moscow on side as a powerbroker in the region. This balancing act is repeated in regard to Turkish arms supply, which Erdogan is also motivated to diversify. The current impasse reads similarly to 2013 when Turkey announced its intention to acquire a Chinese air defence system instead of American or European equipment[23]. The deal never came to fruition yet serves to illustrate Turkey’s historically recaltricant attitude towards American attempts to direct the foreign policy of its ally.

Putin’s decision to offer the S-400 Triumf to Turkey has undoubtedly been a strategic success. Whether secondary sanctions are imposed on Turkey or not, Moscow will have reason to rejoice. Sowing disharmony within NATO serves to undermine the Alliance at a moment where its very existence is being questioned by its member states[24]. Moreover, a worst-case scenario for Turkey could provide Moscow an opportunity to deepen its arms exports to Ankara, potentially substituting F-35 combat aircraft for Russian-made Sukhoi SU-35 jets[25].



Assessing these developments closely will be New Delhi, which is also locked into a standoff with Washington over a potential S-400 purchase. In 2018 India signed a $5.5 billion contract for five regiments of the S-400 Triumf. Again, the US has offered India the potential sale of American-made air defence systems although New Delhi has persisted in its decision to buy from Moscow[26].  Although the delivery of the systems is some way off, India risks triggering secondary sanctions under CAATSA should the deal go through. Nevertheless, the case of India is characterised by altogether different strategic considerations for Washington than with Turkey. India is not a member of NATO but lies in immediate proximity to China, which is locked into a geopolitical and economic rivalry with the USA.

On this basis a much stronger case can constructed for India to be made exempt from CAATSA secondary sanctions. India is quickly becoming the centrepiece of American strategy in Asia, with the US tellingly renaming its PACOM to the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPAC)[27]. The move underscores the convergence of aims between Washington and New Delhi in checking the regional hegemonic ambitions of Beijing. Indeed, New Delhi is now actively seeking to counter Chinese Belt and Road economic initiatives throughout the Indian Ocean, in a bid to prevent Beijing from developing a string of ports (with potential military use) around India. Likewise, the USA is pushing back against Chinese irredentist maritime advances in the South China Sea[28]. India’s S-400 purchase is part of a wider trend in the country’s defence modernisation efforts as New Delhi attempts to buff up its capabilities in the face of a rising China. Russia even provides India with nuclear powered attack submarines to serve as a deterrent against China[29]. Washington would be wise to consider granting New Delhi a waiver as part of a larger strategy to enhance the air defences of a major non-NATO ally so close to China.

Critics, particularly in Congress, have maintained that India should instead buy military hardware from the USA over Russia. This position overlooks the same consideration that motivates other regional powers such as Turkey – balancing relations with external powers in order to maintain independence. This tendency is even more ingrained into the Indian policymaking psyche than in Turkey, both through historical non-alignment during the Cold War, and the ‘strategic autonomy’ pursued today by the Modi government[30]. Regardless, the current trend of Indian military hardware imports suggests a shift away from a historical reliance on Russia and towards the United States. Indian defence spending is on the rise, accounting for 12% of all global arms imported between 2013-2017, In that same period American arms imports to India rose by a staggering 557%. Although Russia remains the largest exporter of arms to India, its proportion of these sales is steadily declining as America’s share continues to climb apace[31].

The Trump administration would be prudent to grant India a waiver from CAATSA secondary sanctions; the cost of India acquiring an S-400 is much lower than in the case of Turkey and may in fact bear fruit in the long term as New Delhi asserts itself against Beijing. A sudden decision to abandon military imports from Russia is not feasible. Recognising Indian strategic autonomy whilst gently encouraging the enhancement of further Indo-American military sales will encourage opportunities to deepen ties with a strategically key but historically ambivalent regional partner. This is not to say that a waiver should be granted unconditionally to New Delhi, which still maintains thorny relations with the US over specific trade issues. Labelled a ‘tariff king’ by Trump, India may still have to make some form of economic concessions to the USA in order to secure exemption from secondary sanctions[32].

India may indeed deserve a waiver from secondary CAATSA sanctions, although at present Washington continues to send out mixed signals. A recent internal debate on the CAATSA waiver in Washington concerned US SecDef Mattis advocating for the protection of India from secondary sanctions. His position clashed with NSA Bolton who opposed giving India any special treatment[33]. As of September 2019, both individuals have now resigned from government. Their respective replacements Esper and O’Brien have yet to make their positions known. The second round of US-India ‘2+2’ talks are set to take place on 18th December 2019 and will likely shed further light on current sentiment in Washington[34].



CAATSA secondary sanctions under Section 231 place American allies and partners in an uncomfortable position. Whilst it may be partially successful at raising the costs of doing business with Russia’s defence and intelligence industries, CAATSA remains a blunt instrument that has failed to deter third parties from adhering to their core strategic considerations when negotiating military purchases[35]. Hedging relations remains paramount to the foreign policy of many middle powers. Indeed, Turkey is not unique in courting Russia for access to next-gen military technology, it is merely the first US-ally to follow through on its contracts. Amongst others, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in the process of negotiating deals with Moscow for military hardware such as the S-400 or SU-35 fighter jets[36].

CAATSA serves to constrain the US by continuously obliging Washington to threaten secondary sanctions under Section 231. The legislation lacks specific guidance on what constitutes a ‘significant’ arms transaction with Russia and has no consistent approach to waivers; an arbitrary case-by-case exemption process will invite disgruntlement when the President grants one ally a waiver but fails to protect another[37]. Moscow meanwhile can, at will, generate friction between America and almost any state simply by offering the prospect of a major defence acquisition.

US policymakers must recognise that wielding secondary sanctions as ‘blunt tools’ may alienate key partners, encouraging them to pursue seemingly adversarial actions[38]. CAATSA requires pressing reform, primarily by removing ambiguity from the wording of the legislation in order to add credibility to the threat of secondary sanctions. The threat of punishment however must be paired with meaningful structural alternatives to Moscow’s defence industry. Security cooperation with the US should be pursued in alignment with the exclusion of Russia when assessing the military hardware requirements of third-party states[39]. At present, offers of more expensive American equipment, with more conditions attached is not enough.










































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