Mehmet Efe Çaman
You do not have to be a weapons expert to understand that the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles that will be delivered and stationed somewhere in Turkey this summer are targeting Ankara’s relations with the US and NATO. The purchase of these missiles is obviously more complex than just a choice about a defense system. The US and Turkey are experiencing a far-reaching breakdown in their relationship, and it is uncertain if this relationship will ever recover. The dispute over the Turkish regime’s decision to buy these sophisticated Russian weapons is just the tip of the iceberg regarding Ankara’s transition from Turkey’s traditional Western orientation and its role in the Euro-Atlantic defense community. Since a military coup attempt in 2016 by Turkish officials and the state-controlled Turkish media, the US and some other key Western allies such as Germany have been gradually accused of being the real perpetrators of the unsuccessful coup.
Moreover, since then, Turkey has radicalized its Kurdish politics and begun to target Syrian-Kurdish groups such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that are operating outside Turkish territory in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) while being supported by the US both in terms of air support and logistics including intelligence, weapons and ammunition. This has strengthened anti-US sentiment in Turkey, as the Turkish media is completely controlled by the regime and therefore exclusively serves as an instrument of regime discourse. In addition, Ankara has increasingly gotten closer to Moscow. The timing of this shift in Turkey’s perceptions is noteworthy, particularly because Russia has recently been such a widespread topic of media attention in the US regarding its alleged involvement in American elections and the accusations against President Trump and his inner circle of collaboration. In this context the S-400 dispute is a highly explosive subject in Turkish-American relations.
The US has urged Turkey to drop its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system ever since Ankara gave the first signals it would buy them because the system would not be compatible with its current arsenal of NATO military hardware. The US argues that the radars of the Russian S-400 system would be able to track the signature of NATO planes, including the F-35. Since Turkey is a member of the F-35 consortium and produces some parts of the plane, the US and NATO were initially optimistic that they would be able to find a diplomatic solution before it was too late. Some experts on Turkey even thought Erdogan and the security elites in Turkey were bluffing about changing sides when Ankara increased diplomatic and intelligence contact with the Russians. Others believed Erdogan was blackmailing the US over its support in Syrian Kurdistan. Several delegations were sent to Turkey to convince Erdogan not to insist on this move and to purchase the American-made Patriot system instead. However, Ankara did not give up. All diplomatic contacts failed, and the US strategy turned to an unusual carrot and stick game.
The US and NATO consider the purchase of the S-400s from three different angles: strategic, security and geopolitical. All these viewpoints are highly relevant. First, Ankara’s new Eurasianist security and foreign policy orientation is a risk factor for the West. Second is the direct security risk posed by the integration of smart (artificial intelligence-based) S-400s into NATO systems. Thirdly, weapons systems are geopolitical anchors. After stationing Russian missiles on its soil, Turkey will be increasingly dependent on Russia. This is an important geopolitical factor, especially if the country is a NATO member. In this context the Pentagon and State Department’s concerns moved Washington to exert higher-level pressure to change Erdogan’s mind regarding the S-400s. Turkey is not only a country that once played a key role in NATO in the Cold War but also has been a reliable partner in the Atlantic security community since the end of the Cold War. Turkey’s involvement in the post-9/11 era, particularly in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa, contributed to the alliance’s solidarity and power. Moreover, Turkey is located in one of the most strategically important regions of the world, between southeastern Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. This geopolitical dimension differentiates Turkey from all other partners. Its territory connects the Euro-Atlantic community with a highly security-relevant region. Its geographical location makes Turkey a vital partner for European security. Turkey being in the orbit of Russia would not fit into this picture. Yet, that is exactly what is happening.
The US has been correlating Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s with the exclusion of Ankara from the F-35 project both as a buyer and as a stakeholder. A number of Turkish manufacturers are making parts and equipment for the F-35. Meanwhile, steps have been taken to exclude Turkish manufacturers from the F-35 project, which is an immense strategic move considering Turkey’s position in NATO. The US Congress passed legislation in 2018 to block the sale of F-35 advanced fighter jets to Turkey should the Turkish government take delivery of the Russian missiles. Also, President Donald Trump has criticized the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 system multiple times. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even threatened Ankara with sanctions and signalled more serious consequences if Turkey does not cancel the deal. Additionally, the US has been attempting to push Turkey for a reappraisal of its decision, suggesting that this step would trigger the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was introduced in July 2017 and is imposed on companies or countries doing business with Iran, Russia and North Korea. The US Congress has also been alarmed by Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian system. A bipartisan bill was recently introduced in the Senate that would block the transfer of F-35s to Turkey if Turkey purchases the S-400s. The Pentagon warned recently that it would halt manufacturing support for the F-35s in Turkey if Ankara buys the Russian missile system. Consequently, the US government stopped deliveries to Turkey of equipment related to the F-35 fighter jet, intensifying the pressure on Ankara. Yet, Ankara has not changed its position. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the S-400 delivery a “done deal.”
The US government has recently issued an ultimatum to Turkey: If Ankara buys the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, economic sanctions will be imposed. Even though Erdogan and other officials said Turkey would never bow to US sanctions over its agreement to buy the Russian S-400s, experts warn of a destructive economic crisis. Furthermore, NATO will most likely exclude Ankara from further joint projects and stop further security investments in Turkey. More importantly, the Atlantic community will begin the process of extricating Turkey from sensitive counter-Russian activities since Russia will have access to security and intelligence-relevant areas in Turkey. The message is clear: Ankara can get either the Russian S-400s or NATO technology; it cannot have both. Which will have a greater impact: the economic sanctions or the strategic exclusion from NATO? It is hard to answer this question, but what we do know is that they are connected. Last year, when President Trump threatened to destroy the Turkish economy, the Turkish currency lost 20 percent of its value. Erdogan responded that he would stand up to American pressure and said, “If they [the US] have their dollar, we have Allah.” This is probably why Erdogan’s Eurasianist allies back him as a showcase of the Turkish regime since the charismatic populist Islamist “Chief” (reis) can pitch anything to the Islamist-nationalist grass roots from all segments of Turkish society and they will buy it.
No matter how deeply the Turkish society might be polarized, one thing is certain: The vast majority of Turkish citizens consider the US an external threat, and they do not trust NATO, either. Fairly understandable due to the Eurasianist and pro-Russian regime propaganda in Turkey! Even the so-called opposition parties such as the leftist-nationalist (Ulusalci) Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the right-nationalist IYI (Good) Party do not criticize the anti-Western and anti-American discourse of the regime or its pro-Eurasianist foreign and security policy. The S-400 dispute creates a common basis for all to unify against this fabricated external threat, which is consolidating the authoritarian regime. The democratic deterioration and erosion of state institutions within the country will continue, even if the Turkish economy collapses. The worst-case scenario is a further deepening of Turkish relations with Russia after possible US sanctions – perhaps a deeper collaboration in the energy sector and even Russia’s financial support of Turkey.
Without a doubt, the S-400 dispute has caused the deepest division in the Atlantic alliance since the end of the Cold War. Ankara is deorbiting from the Atlantic security community. The S-400 crisis clearly shows this fact. Just as foreseen by the Russian-Eurasianist strategy, a vital part of the Atlantic security community will eventually be disabled. Moscow remains the only strategic winner in this geopolitical game until the old status quo is restored. If a reversal in the coming days and weeks does not take place, the new status quo might be here to stay, and the same is true for the regime in Turkey.