Turkey’s Russia arms deal ratchets up tensions with US

Washington has become increasingly tone deaf to its allies’ concerns since Trump became president.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems ride through Red Square in Moscow. (AFP)
A done deal. Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems ride through Red Square in Moscow. (AFP)

As US President Donald Trump’s capricious “America first” diplomacy further destabilises the Middle East, countries in the region are re-evaluating their relations with Washington. Many Middle Eastern countries are also reassessing their dealings with Russia, none more so than Turkey, formerly a valued ally of the US within NATO.

Emblematic of the growing rift between Washington and Ankara is a loan agreement signed six months ago. Turkey agreed to buy four batteries of Russia’s S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system, with initial delivery of the systems planned for the first quarter of 2020.

Ankara chose the S-400, built by the Almaz Central Marine Design Bureau, rather than the US-made MIM-104 Patriot defence system, manufactured by Raytheon. This was primarily because Washington and Raytheon balked at the Turkish government’s insistence the contract include technology transfer, with some components to be manufactured in Turkey. Russia has not seemed opposed to these requirements.

This was not an insignificant choice. The S-400 Triumf entered Russian military service in 2007. It is a mobile surface-to-air missile system capable of engaging aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and cruise missiles. It also has terminal ballistic missile defence capability. The S-400’s capabilities are comparable to the US Patriot system.

Both Washington and NATO expressed concern at Ankara’s decision. While the United States seemed primarily concerned about the potential loss of a lucrative arms export contract to rival Russian firms, NATO had different worries. It was concerned about the S-400 operating with its other air defence systems. Ominously, for the hawks in Washington, Iran has expressed interest in buying Russian anti-aircraft missile systems.

Upping the ante, the United States has threatened Turkey with sanctions. The rationale is that the S-400 contract requires the Turkish military to deal with Rosoboronexport arms export agency, which is on the US government’s blacklist of sanctioned Russian enterprises.

The pressure on Turkey has increased dramatically. The value of the Turkish lira plunged to record lows, dropping to less than 4.37 against the dollar. The US House of Representatives released details of a $717 billion annual defence policy bill that put at risk a sale of fifth-generation F-35 jet fighters to Turkey. Turkey contracted to buy 100 of the fighters, at nearly $130 million apiece.

The congressional proposal infuriated the Turkish government, leading Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to say: “It’s not right for them to speak with us in a threatening way. If they take such a step at a moment when we are trying to mend our bilateral ties, they will sure get a response from Turkey.”

Washington has become increasingly tone deaf to its allies’ concerns since Trump became president. If Washington continues to view the Middle East and Turkey through its unilateralist “America first” lens, Ankara still has a card to play.

The Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey hosts the US Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing, which helps protect US and NATO regional interests. Turkey and the United States have been at odds over Syrian policy, while Russia cast itself in the role of stalwart defender of President Bashar Assad’s regime. Such support includes basing S-400 batteries to protect Russian forces in Syria.

In a worst-case scenario, the American military could find itself up against a nationalist Turkey, increasingly withdrawn from NATO. Integrated Turkish, Russian, Syrian and eventually Iranian S-400 anti-aircraft defence systems could engage US planes. Such a scenario would have seemed extraordinary at the beginning of the year. It seems less so now.

14