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