For the past few years, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has railed ever more belligerently against the U.S., Europe and NATO, Washington’s foreign-policy establishment has argued for patience. Erdogan’s fusillades, mostly intended for domestic consumption, were thought to be a small inconvenience — certainly not enough for the West to abandon Turkey.
Alas, the time has come to acknowledge a greater inconvenience: Turkey has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the West
Erdogan’s actions now match his rhetoric. His decision to take delivery of Russian S-400 missile-defense systems is a finger in NATO’s eye: Western officials have long warned against the purchase, saying the systems could gravely compromise NATO defenses by giving Russian technicians access to vital information on the latest American and European fighter aircraft. Turkey has also escalated tensions with Europe by sending natural-gas exploration vessels into the eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus.
These are deliberate provocations. Turkey could have opted to buy NATO-approved missile systems with comparable capabilities. It might’ve allowed the European Union to mediate in the Mediterranean matter. Instead, Erdogan seems to have calculated that, with American influence on the wane in the neighborhood, his security interests are better served by an alliance with Russia and that President Donald Trump will give him a free pass for switching sides. He seems also to believe that the West won’t have the stomach to impose significant penalties.
Now he must face the consequences. The EU is already in the process of freezing high-level contacts with Turkey, and has started to cut off its financial aid. Since Ankara has scoffed at such measures, the Europeans should go further and impose sanctions against Turkish companies involved in offshore drilling in the eastern Mediterranean. That should discourage further maritime adventurism.
The U.S. needs to go further still. In a good start, President Trump has said Turkey will not receive the F-35 fighter jetsit has purchased. His administration is also removing it from a program to manufacture parts for the aircraft. Having threatened to do so, the White House could ill afford to take a softer line without a change in behavior.
Next, the administration has a long menu of sanctions to choose from, including freezing the assets of top officials, blocking large loans to Turkey, or cutting it off from the U.S. financial system entirely. The aim should be to start with restraint but to quickly ratchet up the penalties unless Erdogan rethinks his miscalculation and verifiably mothballs the Russian equipment.
If that fails, the U.S. and its European allies will need to confront a larger question: Can Turkey be regarded as a reliable ally at all? Although NATO rules don’t allow for a member to be ejected, there are graver practical issues to consider, including the presence of Western military personnel and hardware — not least, nuclear weapons — at NATO bases in Turkey. In recent years, some NATO commanders have been casting around the Middle East for alternative locations for these bases. The arrival of the S-400 systems should speed up their search.
There can be no more doubt that Erdogan has made his choice in this dispute. The West should take him at his word — and prepare to move on without him.