S-400 purchase could redefine Turkey’s geostrategic role

Erdogan is being squeezed into a corner externally: whether he chooses to soften to US pressure or acquire the S-400 system, there will be consequences.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar speaks to reporters in Ankara, May 21. (AP)
Risky gamble. Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar speaks to reporters in Ankara, May 21. (AP)

With the Turkish government pressing ahead with its purchase of a Russian S-400 defence system, the United States’ patience seems to have run out.

A report by CNBC stated: “Turkey has a little more than two weeks to decide whether to complete a complex arms deal with the US or risk severe penalties by going through with an agreement to buy a missile system from Russia.”

“By the end of the first week of June,” the report added: “Turkey must cancel a multibillion-dollar deal with Russia and instead buy Raytheon’s US-made Patriot missile defence system or face removal from Lockheed Martin’s F-35 programme, forfeiture of 100 promised F-35 jets, imposition of US sanctions and potential blowback from NATO.”

The report, based on anonymous US sources, was not denied.

The US moves, which constitute no less than a full-on threat to Turkey, were followed by another concrete measure to pressure Turkey. Earlier in May, the US Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled a defence budget that aims to ban the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey.

The proposed 2020 National Defence Authorisation Act would prohibit funding to transfer the F-35 or related equipment and intellectual property to Ankara “unless the secretary of defence and secretary of state can confirm Turkey has not accepted the Russian system and certify they will not purchase the system in the future,” official sources said.

These steps mark a steep escalation in the showdown between Turkey and the United States. All earlier disputes between Washington and Ankara, including those in 1964 or 1974 regarding Cyprus, pale in comparison. While those rifts may have led to partial sanctions, this time Turkey’s decades-long membership in NATO is at stake.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration’s obstinate attitude on the issue can be likened to a cat no longer able to unwind a ball of yarn because it has unravelled too far.

Erdogan’s initial push to highlight the S-400 purchase was apparently aimed at gaining leverage and a strong bargaining position. However, as with other recent moves, it seems to have backfired, causing deep damage to the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic arsenal.

Erdogan’s pro-Russian stance has emboldened the so-called Eurasianist flank in state structures, pushing Erdogan, whether knowingly or not, into a trap.

Erdogan is also being squeezed into a corner externally: whether he chooses to soften to US pressure or acquire the S-400 system, there will be consequences.

“To be clear, this is a terrible place to be in,” wrote Aaron Stein, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Programme in Washington. “However, if Ankara chooses to deepen its partnership with Russia, bad could turn into grievous, as legacy defence cooperation with the United States could then be called into question. Most important, the Turkish-Russian entente further undermines Ankara’s position within NATO and, therefore, the very notion of collective defence and burden-sharing among the 29 member-states.”

The impasse leaves Erdogan with these two choices. If he does choose to ignore US threats and use his opposition to the Americans as a populist tool to ride the wave of nationalism ahead of local elections in Istanbul in June, it will be clear that Turkey’s geostrategic role has been radically redefined. And with the United States’ lack of patience, this could indeed happen very quickly.

14