Making sense of Turkey selecting Russia’s S-400 air-defence system

Sunday 06/08/2017
Long-standing prowess. Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems ride through Red Square, last May. (AFP)

Dubai - As friction between Tur­key and its ostensible allies in the West grows, numerous reports cite Turkish and Russian of­ficials suggesting that Ankara is close to finalising a nearly $2.5 bil­lion deal to acquire Russia’s S-400 air- and missile-defence system. This would mark a sharp pivot from Turkey’s traditional axis and the clearest indicator yet of Ankara’s thinking.
In 2015, it looked as if Turkey had selected the Chinese-manufac­tured FD-2000 system. However, after what was thought to be sig­nificant pressure from the United States, Ankara was persuaded to re­start the process. The possibility of more competitive proposals from Turkey’s US and European sup­pliers likely sweetened that particular pill.
Simultaneous to this process has been grow­ing rift between Europe and Russia. In the last few years, NATO has been establishing a ballistic missile shield using US and European systems to counter the growing threat of missile prolif­eration from countries such as Iran and North Korea.
Such moves have been greeted with suspicion in Moscow. For the Kremlin, NATO’s plans appear to be focused primarily on Russia and, as such, pose a threat to the estab­lished balance of power. Russia is working on developing weapons it claims will effectively negate NATO’s missile defence plans in Europe.
At a time of such mistrust be­tween NATO and Moscow, which may have contributed to Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Syria, Ankara’s growing align­ment with Moscow takes on new and significant implications.
For the United States, Turkey’s selection of the Chinese FD-2000 was bad enough. However, Tur­key’s shift to Russia as its technol­ogy partner in air- and missile- de­fence is far more worrying.
The S-400 will have no interoper­ability with US and European sys­tems used by NATO. Key alliance members would hardly tolerate a Russian system being integrated into their network, even if it was technically possible. Russia has de­ployed the S-400 in Syria and sold a less-advanced variant to Iran fol­lowing the lifting of international sanctions against it regarding the nuclear deal.
Turkey’s longer-term commit­ment to NATO is another important issue. There is a growing percep­tion that Turkey’s trust in NATO has been hit hard. Some Turks say NATO’s support was below ex­pectations as its southern borders were affected by the Syrian civil war. Western voices were similarly muted during the related stand-off between Turkey and Russia after­ward, though that has since been resolved.
Separately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rul­ing party lashed out at what they saw as slow and weak condemna­tion by NATO allies of an attempted military coup last year. Greece and Germany have been accused of granting asylum to Turkish military personnel wanted by Ankara for involvement in the coup plot, fuel­ling suspicions of Western backing or support to topple the Turkish government. Possibly as a result, Ankara has downsized its represen­tation at NATO headquarters.
European goodwill towards An­kara has similarly cooled follow­ing what many see as an excessive crackdown on political opposition within Turkey. The barring of en­try by Germany and Netherlands to Turkish politicians seeking to participate in public rallies for ex­patriate Turks created a sour at­mosphere and illustrated a growing mutual dislike.
Ultimately, not only have Turkish aspirations of EU membership been called into question, many wonder whether Turkey will preserve its longer-term alliance with the West through its membership of NATO. In the middle is the United States, which has struggled to mediate be­tween the two increasingly belliger­ent sides.
Still, nothing is definite yet. Pro­curing the S-400 system will, An­kara claimed, provide it with the kind of technology transfer that US and European allies have proven unwilling to trust Ankara with.
In theory, the door remains open for Turkey to procure US or Eu­ropean systems, to be operated separately. Alternatively, Turkey could choose to play a prominent role in the NATO missile-defence programme in exchange for the al­liance funding a deployment of sys­tems in Turkey.
Ankara may genuinely not want to abandon its traditional strategic alliance with the West but its grow­ing tendency to venture out further is likely indicative of its longer-term ambitions and outlook. Either way, the acquisition of the S-400 adds to the increasingly strategic dimensions of a renewing Turkish- Russian partnership.