The Trump administration’s heavy-handed effort to use sanctions to dissuade countries from buying Russian-made defence hardware is a “double-edged sword” which could wind up driving customers away from the US and into the arms of Russian, Chinese or European arms manufacturers, Stratfor military analyst Omar Lamrani believes.
In a recent article for the Austin, Texas-based think tank, often described as the ‘shadow CIA’, Lamrani says that the bid to use sanctions to grow US arms exports is part of Washington’s “zero-sum approach” to competition with rival powers, and a military-industrial complex-centric approach to US foreign policy, which has helped to increase arms sales from $33.6 billion in 2016 to $55.4 billion in 2019.
However, as Russia, the world’s second-largest weapons exporter, continues to make its own multi-billion dollar deals with everyone from US adversaries and neutral nations to US allies like Turkey, the US has sought it necessary to do everything it can to put a spoke in Moscow’s wheels.
“While the United States did not develop CAATSA for the express purpose of promoting American arms exports over Russian ones, it has emerged as a key tool for the Trump administration in that regard,” Lamrani argues.
CAATSA Hammer Falls on You
Signed into law in 2017, CAATSA was first applied in September 2018 against China, targeting Beijing over its decision to purchase advanced Russian fighter jets and S-400s air defence batteries. Since then, Washington gone on to brandish CAATSA at India, Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey, most recently threatening to employ the tool against Western European energy concerns for their participation in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia’s Gazprom.
“Given the United States’ sheer economic heft,” the threat of sanctions “is no idle threat,” the analyst notes. “Indeed, Russia has long labeled CAATSA as a tool of unfair competition.” At the same time however, Lamrani believes that over the long-term, US threats could end up backfiring on Washington, particularly if they come to be seen as ‘trust-destroying’ political interference in other countries’ affairs.
Furthermore, he notes, “for many countries…there is no competitive alternative to the equipment they buy from Russia (in some cases, even from the United States), as other suppliers cannot offer the same product at the same price point or with the same level of technology transfer.” India, whose military fields literally thousands of Russian made tanks, aircraft and warships, is a case in point.
Finally, Lamrani argues, even if the US sanctions succeed in dissuading a country from buying Russian, CAATSA leaves no guarantee that they won’t could shoulder the US and turn to European Chinese, or even domestic manufacturers.
This week, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee formally approved sanctioning Turkey under CAATSA over its $2.5 billion S-400 deal with Russia, having earlier kicked the country out of the F-35 fighter programme over its insolence. However, instead of giving up its newly acquired Russian systems, Ankara has doubled down, threatening to kick the US out of Incirlik, a key strategic airbase and transport hub which the US military relies on to shuttle equipment and personnel in and out of the Middle East.
“Instead of bowing to US demands, Turkey thus far has threatened to move even closer to Russia, exploring the purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets as an alternative to the F-35 fighters whose transfer the United States is blocking,” Lamrani points out. “Ultimately, the spat shows how the issue of arms sales, alongside other US quibbles with Turkey, can have a remarkable impact on relations among three critical powers in a remarkably short time,” he adds.
In the final analysis, the analyst suggests that while “adopting such a zero-sum approach could help the United States keep countries, especially those highly dependent on it, from purchasing arms from Russia…the case of Turkey highlights” that “playing hardball could also drive the countries in question even further into Moscow’s arms.”