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Turkey, Russia, and the Looming S-400 Crisis
July 10, 2019 - Middle East Institute (MEI)
Dr. Kerim Has
With delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system to Turkey looming, a new crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations is slowly emerging. That Ankara is moving closer to Moscow and farther away from its Western partners on Syria and issues like Iran and Venezuela is a source of irritation for Washington, and the dispute over the S-400 is just the latest episode in what has become a broader trend. This episode has drawn more attention than most, however, given that it involves Moscow selling its latest anti-missile system to a NATO member state. The transaction also raises a fundamental question about Ankara’s perceptions of who its allies and adversaries really are.
Following a crisis in Turkish-Russian relations in November 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near its border with Syria, a rapprochement between the two countries began in late June 2016. Bilateral ties subsequently entered a new period in which regional affairs, particularly the issue of Syria, topped the agenda. Complicated regional problems, such as terrorism, the Kurdish question, Iraq’s fragile statehood, Iran’s growing role in the Middle East and its nuclear program, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean basin have all become factors in the multidimensional relationship between Ankara and Moscow. Importantly, the security and defense sectors, long ignored, have emerged as a major area for bilateral cooperation as well.
Despite differing on almost all of these issues, Turkey and Russia have so far been able to manage their disagreements. This could be explained mainly by the “asymmetrical model”1 in Turkish-Russian relations that developed after the jet shootdown crisis in 2015. This dynamic evolved further in the aftermath of the mysterious coup attempt on July 15, 2016, when the Turkish leadership made remarkable concessions to the Kremlin to ensure foreign support, at a time when its growing authoritarianism hurt its domestic legitimacy and hobbled its international ambitions.
Negotiations over the S-400 began in fall 2016 and resulted in a $2.5 billion deal at the end of the following year, under which Russia agreed to supply Turkey with four S-400 batteries. Turkey has already made some advance payments and received loans from Russia totaling 55 percent of the total cost. Despite growing U.S. pressure, Turkey sent military specialists to Russia in May 2019 for several months of training on the use of the S-400, and the first stage of delivery is set to begin imminently.
Turkey Loses, Russia Gains, US Threatens
While Turkey urgently needs an air and missile defense system given the growing security risks in its region, it remains unclear why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to acquire such a system from a historical rival and potential adversary. Just three and a half years ago, Ankara and Moscow were on the brink of war, and lingering issues like the deadlock over Idlib, the Kurdish puzzle, and the broader question of Turkey’s presence in Syria hang over their relationship like the sword of Damocles. From a realist perspective, Turkey should have closed its strategic defense gap using NATO means to balance the capacity of its much larger, more aggressive, and nuclear-armed neighbor. Theory aside, it seems that the Turkish leadership not only seeks, but is bound to purchase the S-400 system, which will have three major consequences for Turkey and its future geopolitical orientation, all of which are contrary to its own interests.
First, the S-400s are incompatible with Turkey’s existing NATO weapons and radar systems, a fact Turkish officials admit.2 According to Russian sources,3 Moscow rejected Turkey’s request to access the S-400’s electronic codes and internal data, meaning that the friend-or-foe identification system will probably show all aircraft in Turkish airspace as “unknown” objects except Turkey’s own jets, even if Ankara can adapt its national system to link up with the S-400s.4 This would limit its ability to eliminate possible external threats, increasing the risk that misidentification of an aircraft could lead to a military conflict. Without NATO interoperability, stand-alone S-400 batteries cannot operate at full capacity and their effectiveness will be limited to creating “local bubbles” protecting specific targets. This begs the question: who exactly is Turkey trying to defend itself from using the S-400?
There is no doubt that Turkey’s S-400s will be blind to potential threats from Russia. It is also hard to imagine that the missiles could be used against Russia’s allies and partners in the region, like Armenia, Syria, and Iran. Currently, these countries have S-300 missiles in their inventories and extensive experience using Soviet/Russian weapons. Traditionally, these countries have been perceived to be a major threat to Turkey’s national security, but the S-400s will not eliminate that risk — and indeed may even increase Turkey’s vulnerability.
Expanding the scope of this analysis, there are few other obvious threats. It is clear that Iraq does not pose a threat to Turkey in the short and medium terms. Ukraine is a close partner of the Turkish defense industry, with Ankara selling combat drones to Kiev. Turkey’s relations with EU and NATO neighbors Bulgaria and Greece deteriorate from time to time on a rhetorical level, but an armed conflict is unrealistic. Azerbaijan and Georgia are non-factors. European powers like Germany and France are vital trading partners and long-time allies under NATO, who also depend on Turkey as a refugee “buffer zone” between the Middle East and Europe. Separately, terrorist organizations including ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) lack the aerial capacity to warrant deploying the S-400.
That leaves just one other option: a possible U.S. military intervention in Turkey. This scenario also seems far-fetched considering the longstanding cooperation between the two countries. In parallel to procuring the S-400, over the past few years Ankara has regularly reiterated its demand to buy the American Patriot surface-to-air missile system and maintain its participation in the French-Italian consortium Eurosam’s long-range air missile system development and production project. Turkey’s interest in purchasing American missiles while simultaneously anticipating a U.S. military assault seems illogical. Indeed, Turkey is also home to a sizeable U.S. military presence at Incirlik Air Base, including tactical nuclear weapons. For his part, President Erdogan has made clear he does not expect an attack from the U.S., at least in the short term. As he wrote in The New York Times in January 2019, “Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest standing army, is the only country with the power and commitment” in Syria “to protect the interests of the United States.”5 This is a task he seems willing to perform, according to the article — contradictory as that may seem.
Another paradox is Turkey’s offer to establish a joint working group with the U.S. to mitigate the possible risks that S-400s present to American F-35 jets based in Turkey. If Ankara truly fears a U.S. intervention, then letting American study the S-400 would be tantamount to shooting itself in the foot. Even without such disclosures, it seems dubious to assume that a few S-400 “local bubbles” would keep President Erdogan or anybody else safe from a hypothetical U.S. military intervention. So, the question remains: why is Turkey buying S-400s?
Second, the S-400 deal will not aid the development of the Turkish defense industry, and indeed may even leave it worse off. Contrary to vague statements from the Turkish authorities, Russia has clearly and repeatedly publicized that the S-400 deal does not provide for critical technology transfer to Turkey or joint production, even though such benefits formed much of Turkey’s justification for negotiating with Russia in the first place. Thus, Turkey’s criticism of the U.S. Patriot system and preference for Russian S-400s is not based on technology transfer and joint production, as is often claimed, demonstrating a clear double standard when it comes to evaluating the Russian and American offers. The Turkish defense industry would have been in a better position had the country opted to join the Eurosam missile project consortium instead. By purchasing the Russian system, Turkey will deprive itself of the new opportunities offered by the Eurosam joint development and production project.
Third, by selling the S-400, Moscow intends to drive a wedge between Turkey and NATO and cause a serious rift in the Western alliance. Turkey’s pursuit of an “alternative military partnership” has so far played into the hands of the Kremlin. Selling missiles to a country that is both a NATO member and a central actor in Middle Eastern affairs is a major win for Russia’s long-term PR strategy and a boon to its foreign military sales, international prestige, and authority in the region, where Washington’s partners far outnumber Moscow’s.
The U.S. has continually insisted that if Turkey deploys the S-400s it would risk its participation in the joint F-35 stealth fighter jet program and has tried to dissuade Turkish authorities from completing the deal. Washington claims that Russia could exploit the S-400 to study the F-35’s radar signature or access its computer network. Indeed, some high-level Russian military officials also agree that the system would allow Moscow to obtain such information.6
Beyond suspending Turkish companies’ participation in the F-35 project — a multibillion-dollar loss — the Pentagon has also threatened to block F-35 sales to the country altogether, despite its plans to buy more than 100 in the coming years. Other defense projects will be affected as well, with F-16 modernization plans, “ATAK” helicopter engines, CH-47F Chinook, and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters also potentially subject to sanctions. Even beyond the defense sphere, the U.S. Congress has threatened to impose additional economic sanctions on Turkey in accordance with the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a move that would damage its defense industry and banking sector.
Against this backdrop, Turkey’s working group suggestion has yet to be welcomed by Washington. The proposal may be aimed more at delaying American sanctions than stepping back from the issue entirely. If sanctions are implemented, Turkey’s economy will suffer, and the country must have a reason for taking this risk. While it would likely give President Erdogan the ability to shift the blame for Turkey’s deepening economic crisis to the U.S., and thus potentially extend his political survival, at least for a bit, this alone is not enough to explain things. Turkey’s defense capabilities would also be significantly damaged if it goes ahead with the deal, and under these conditions, it seems absurd for Ankara to proceed.
Moreover, Russia’s increasing involvement in Turkey’s defense industry, even as the country’s military capacity is weakening, might lead to tough conversations at the NATO level. Ankara would be hastening its isolation within NATO, possibly leading to its suspension from the alliance’s military activities. Eventually, Turkey’s role in NATO might also be put under strain, raising the question of whether its membership is really worth the hassle.
National Sovereignty vs. (Ir)rational Choice
Interpreting the S-400 decision as purely an act of populist demagoguery is misguided and detrimental to Turkey’s own interests. The S-400 deal is not an issue of national sovereignty as many high-level Turkish officials claim. It is rather a practical choice without any rational strategic basis. S-400 missiles will not pave the way to full independence, but will likely solidify the existing asymmetry in Turkish-Russian relations in the long run. Ironically, Turkey is now facilitating Russian intervention in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean and enabling Russia’s leverage through its two main foreign policy tools: energy and weapons. All of this geopolitical maneuvering, aimed solely at gaining ground, is a far cry from the Turkish foreign policy of 1952, when it became a NATO member to escape a Soviet threat around its periphery.
Turkey is already dependent on Russia for its energy needs. The country supplies around half of Turkey’s natural gas, and the first line of the TurkStream pipeline project, completed in late 2018, further cements its dominant role in the market. Adding the Akkuyu nuclear power plant — currently under development by Russia’s Rosatom in Mersin — to the equation, Moscow will have a decisive role in Turkey’s critical energy infrastructure. The S-400 purchase might create a similar dependency in another strategically important sphere. It is hard to rule out a scenario in which Russian army “technical support” rotations slowly transform into a permanent military presence. This dependency on Moscow would impede Turkey’s pursuit of its interests in regions as varied as the Caucasus, Crimea, the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Hence, the S-400s are not a declaration of Turkey’s independence or sovereignty but instead a miscalculation and illusion on the part of the Turkish political elite rooted in its own personal interests, rather than geopolitics.
Strategic Interests vs. Personal Necessity
None of the reasons explored above really answers the question of why Turkey is so determined to get the S-400. However, there are a few clues that may help to solve this riddle. Turkey has been experiencing a governing crisis for more than half a decade now, beginning with the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Erdogan’s polarizing politics and demonizing discourse have reached their limits and begun to fail the ruling party, as was made clear in Istanbul’s re-run mayoral election in June 2019. Combined with the deterioration of democratic norms, this means Erdogan has very limited options to save Turkey from a massive financial crisis. Other stressors include the Syrian jihadist threat and the Kurdish problem, both of which are complicated by the planned withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Syria.
In this context, Turkey’s leadership may expect more trouble domestically if support for the ruling party declines dramatically and Erdogan faces larger protests. Separately, the jihadist and Kurdish issues represent a similar, more dangerous threat that could wreak havoc in the region. If such a conflict were to spread, actors from outside the region (namely Russia and the U.S.) could become involved. In this case, Ankara can reasonably assume that it may find itself opposing the West in a possible conflict both at home and abroad. In this vein, the S-400 deal could be a form of “political bribery,” an advance payment to guarantee Russian support if Erdogan were to face a challenge to his rule along the lines of Venezuela or Syria.
However, it remains a dilemma for Turkey since purchasing the S-400s could trigger U.S. sanctions, leading to a further deterioration of the economy and accelerating street protests. From this perspective, one could conclude that there must be a reason why President Erdogan cannot easily forego the deal, and perhaps the Kremlin has some means of political blackmail at its disposal. Russia has numerous points of leverage — such as the situation in Idlib and Turkey’s broader presence in Syria, the Kurdish issue, and possibly undeclared agreements relating to TurkStream gas prices or the cost of the Akkuyu plant — but the most important tools for Moscow may relate to Erdogan’s own personal interests and hold on power.
Reza Zarrab, a key figure in a Turkish-Iranian sanctions evasion and money laundering ring, may provide a clue. Russian officials first reported Zarrab to the Turkish judicial authorities when his team was caught in 2011 carrying $150 million in cash in their suitcases at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. A case against Zarrab was opened in Turkey as part of the huge December 2013 corruption scandal that implicated a number of leading government officials, but it was immediately closed as a result of pressure from the political leadership. After Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane in November 2015, bilateral relations reached their nadir and Russia steadily ramped up pressure on President Erdogan. In early March 2016, Russia’s permanent representative presented the UN Security Council with evidence alleging ties between the Turkish government and terrorist organizations, primarily ISIS and al-Nusra Front, including its involvement in illegal trade in oil. In late March 2016, Zarrab was arrested in the U.S., subsequently pleaded guilty, and cooperated with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, suggesting a pre-existing agreement with the U.S. Following Zarrab’s arrest, Turkey immediately opened a line of communication with Russia, and in April President Erdogan sent mediators to Russia to discuss reconciliation with President Vladimir Putin. Several months later, in late June 2016, President Erdogan issued a letter of apology for the fighter jet incident.
Shortly thereafter a mysterious coup attempt took place in Turkey on July 15th, 2016, and the government responded with a massive, still-ongoing crackdown. The question of who exactly was behind the coup attempt still needs to be answered in an objective way, after a thorough investigation. However, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has asserted that the coup was “controlled,” claiming that the Turkish government knew about it in advance but didn’t stop it. This argument is in line with the narrative in Russia. In Moscow, it is well known that the Russian diplomatic, military, and intelligence services notified their Turkish counterparts at the highest level, many days in advance, about the details of an upcoming coup attempt, giving the day and time. If it is true that the Turkish authorities had a direct role in the coup attempt, then it complicates the situation even more, but also clarifies the need for President Erdogan to sign the S-400 deal — and Moscow’s main point of leverage.
If a “fictitious” coup plan really was put into effect on July 15th, then not being solely dependent on leading Western powers — particularly the United States — seems logical, as it would help to overcome further problems in relation to deepening authoritarianism and weakening domestic legitimacy. Within that context, thawing tensions with Russia by sending an apology letter to expand the room for maneuver before executing such a coup plan would also make sense, as would starting negotiations on the S-400s after the so-called coup attempt. This would make the missile deal not only “political bribery,” but also “blood money” paid by the Turkish leadership to Moscow to ensure the latter’s support.
Quo Vadis, Turkey?
In sum, it appears very difficult for the current Turkish ruling elite to opt out of the S-400 deal. There are three main reasons for this. First, unless it obtains a guarantee from the U.S. and its Western partners to ensure its long-term political survival, Turkey’s ruling elite will likely not be able to budge. The likelihood of it receiving such a guarantee diminishes every passing day. Second, the Turkish leadership cannot completely predict Russia’s reaction if the deal were to collapse. Turkey might use the Syrian army’s Idlib operation, backed by Russia, as a pretext to abandon the missile deal, but it would be a risky move, as Moscow could in turn open a Pandora’s box for the Turkish leadership. Third, the power structure of the Turkish state has changed in recent years to include both nationalists and so-called pro-Eurasianists, alongside Erdogan loyalists, in key posts. Each faction has different objectives and divergent interests in signing the S-400 deal, so a possible cancellation might unleash an internal power struggle. Since such a clash of interests would likely devastate the ruling elite, the “marriage of convenience” between these three groups continues.
Ultimately, the most likely scenario for Turkey’s withdrawal from the deal would be a split in President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. The emergence of new political forces as a result of the party’s fragmentation might trigger early elections and change the calculus for the Turkish leadership once again, regardless of who is in power. In any case, changing gears will not be an easy task, as the dark clouds hovering over Turkish politics show no signs of abating.
1. Has, Kerim, “Türkiye-Rusya ilişkilerinde derinleşen asimetrik model,” [Deepening asymmetrical model in Turkey-Russia relations], Karar, May 31, 2019
2. Ozer, Sarp, “Defense minister: Turkey expects S-400 missiles in June,” Anadolu Agency, April 16, 2019, retrieved June 26, 2019
3. Zatari, Amalia, “Rossiya ne zdala Turtsii paroli ot S-400,” [Russia refused to give Turkey access to the electronics of S-400s], Gazeta.ru, October 1, 2017
4. Kilic, Hakan, “IFF nasıl çalışır?,” [How does IFF work?], Gaste24.com, June 11, 2019
5. Erdogan, Recep Tayyip, “Erdogan: Trump is right on Syria, Turkey can get the job done.” The New York Times. January 7, 2019.
6. “Shamanov: Rossiya ne otkajetsya ot postavok S-400 v Turtsiyu,” [Shamanov: Russia will not refuse to supply S-400 to Turkey], Interfax, April 2, 2019