Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

A deal too far: Turkey and the US fall apart over Russian missiles

Turkey- S-400 missile
A Russian Antonov military cargo plane, carrying S-400 missile defense system from Russia, is unloaded after landing at the Murted military airbase in Ankara on July 12, 2019. Photo: STRINGER / AFP

After years of worsening relations between Turkey and the United States, the arrival of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in Turkey marks perhaps the culmination of these tensions.

The prospect of Turkey buying $2.5 billion dollars‘ worth of Russian missile systems was first announced in August 2016, as relations between Turkey and the US were strained by years of Turkish autocratic slide and the immediate purges following the failed coup on July 15, 2016. Following the Obama administration’s tack, since 2016, the US has taken a bullish approach towards President Erdogan. While President Trump has had some kinder words than his predecessor, US courts have still prosecuted an intensely embarrassing case against Turkish bankers for sanctions evasion, as well as criticized Ankara for its growing authoritarianism. Amid these events, the saga of the sale of the S-400 to Turkey has only worsened the malaise of US-Turkey relations.

A diplomatic game of ‘chicken’

From the outset, Washington has taken a no-nonsense line to what it saw as a Turkish bluff to counteract American diplomatic and economic pressure. Turkey is a long-standing NATO member and has been a key US ally for much of its historic engagement with the Middle East. This status enabled Turkey to join the exclusive list of nations able to buy the US-made F-35 aircraft series, widely considered the most advanced jet of its generation. There has so far been no other multi-role jet with similar surveillance and stealth abilities. The US has made the F-35 the key leverage to block the Turkey-Russia deal. While training of future Turkish F-35 pilots has continued in the US as negotiations ensued, the delivery of the Russian missiles has condemned talks and Turkey has been pulled from the F-35 programme. The fact that President Erdogan’s renewed promises to see the Russian deal through seem to have little effect on US policy on the programme speaks to how much of today’s geopolitics appears to be taken as theatrical flourishes. The reality of the negotiating positions was kept behind closed doors and even high-profile visits by US officials wasn’t sufficient to change Turkey’s course.

While the US was obviously keen to stop a key ally from buying up military stock from one of its main opponents (especially when Turkey could have bought the more expensive, US-made Patriot missile system), Washington has offered a useful, and apolitical, excuse for blocking the F-35s’ sale. The S-400 missile system is probably considered the best of its type in the world: it is able to deal with a variety of threats at long-distance. However, once part of Turkish air defences, the system would have had ample opportunity to surveil the capabilities of the US-made F-35, the missile system’s most vaunted opponent. The exact specifications of jets like the F-35 are jealously guarded secrets and US authorities were unable to rule out the possibility of the Russian system spying on this prized US asset, which was soon to be in Turkish hands. Interestingly, it appears that Israeli officials have lobbied Washington to block the Turkish acquisition of the F-35 wit the goal to maintain their regional air advantage.

With neither side willing to blink first in this diplomatic ‘game of chicken’, the consequences of the ratcheted US-Turkey tensions were allowed to grow until President Erdogan followed through on his threat by accepting delivery of the missile system, at which point the die was cast. Now President Trump is faced with the option of enforcing Congress-backed sanctions on Turkey (designed to stymie foreign purchases of Russian military equipment) or risk losing any deterrent for other nations following Turkey’s path. Making their voice heard, US Congress members were quick to condemn Turkey following receipt of the missiles.

Warming ties

The common analysis has been that the missile deal has long been considered a Turkish move to tread a more independent path from NATO and especially US partnership. It was no doubt fuelled by Erdogan’s grandiose neo-Ottoman-style ambitions for Turkey: much has been made in the past decade of Ankara’s move away from the West to grow relations with non-traditional partners. Russia has been a key figure in this move, with its close tourism, trade, and energy links with Turkey.

While Turkey and Russia’s goals in Syria may be broadly different, they have also found common ground in their similar heft in deciding the outcome of regional geopolitics. Both have sought more active role in regional affairs in recent years, at times coming to blows, such as the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish army in the Syria-Turkey border in June 2016. However, the status quo seems to be one of pragmatic cooperation when it suits, with the aim of generally staying out of each other’s way.

This renewed closeness is also being shown in other areas. Three opposition journalists who interviewed ex-PM Ahmet Davutoglu (now an Erdogan critic) in a YouTube programme in July later found that their shows with the Turkish-language arm of the Russian state-owned network Sputnik had been terminated — a sign of the growing warmth between Ankara and Moscow after Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system.

Repaying a debt

Since the missile delivery, it has come to light that the purchase was actually part of a tribute to Russia to appease Russian hawks following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces in 2015 and the deterioration of relations. Like Turkey, Russia has suffered economically from US economic sanctions and this military hardware purchase offers an important injection of foreign currency.

By choosing non-Western military hardware, Turkey can pursue a more pragmatic geopolitical position akin to India, which has ties to both East and West but no ideological attachment to either. This enables the Turks to make military purchases that make both political and economic sense.

Some analysts have also suggested that, while the deal served Turkish-Russian relations and broader Turkish interests, President Erdogan also saw a different value in the purchase. Since the attempted coup in 2016, in which his jet was tailed by rebel fighters and he narrowly avoided a kill team sent to his holiday hotel, he seemingly remains paranoid of a future coup, despite the society-wide purges. During the coup attempt, rogue pilots also bombed the parliament and threatened sites in Istanbul. A new anti-aircraft system with a large range, controlled by forces loyal to him, would ensure that President Erdogan could remain safe from any future threat from the air.

Whatever the motivation behind the S-400 purchase, Turkey has made its pursuit of a new path very clear: away from past Western allies and into an unknown territory, unburdened by past alliances. What is certain is that US officials misjudged Turkey’s moves throughout this affair as a mere bluff when it appears the country was, from its early days, genuinely committed to the purchase. The result is perhaps the final nail in the coffin of good US-Turkey relations. Although other US military deals with Turkey have continued, Turkey has been cut out of one of the flagship markers of the US’ closest allies. It has been isolated, but not completely cut out of the fold.

user placeholder
written by
All Fanack articles