ISTANBUL: Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system has presented NATO with an existential problem. Turkey appears to want to enjoy all the benefits of membership in the western security bloc, including the latest military technology, prestige and protection from outside aggression without living up to the responsibilities of that membership, such as presenting a united front against Russia. In short, President Erdogan seems to want his cake and eat it, and in doing so he is playing directly into the hands of President Putin.
Over the past decade, President Erdogan has altered Turkey’s political geography, undoing the Western-facing secular republic created by Kemal Ataturk nearly a century ago, and moving towards a neo-Ottoman Turkey that’s more aligned with its eastern neighbours, including Russia. He argues that the common threat of the Soviet Union has disappeared, so why not deal with its successor, Russia? Unsurprisingly, NATO doesn’t see it this way.
President Erdogan’s visit to Moscow last month was a gift to President Putin, whose clear strategy is the eventual break-up of NATO. He sees Erdogan as a pawn in achieving his aim. Putin has proved a master in speaking not only to the minds but also the hearts of both Turkish decision-makers and the Turkish people. During the visit he flattered nationalist sentiments by offering Erdogan the opportunity of sending a Turkish astronaut into space on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. By coincidence, 2023 is the year of presidential elections and Erdogan is eager to make the anniversary a special milestone in his political career. A Turkish astronaut in space will be an election gift to Erdogan.
The uneasy cooperation between the US and Turkey on Middle East policy has broken down entirely due to differing stances on the war in Syria and the regional Kurdish issue. The canny Putin has noted this breakdown and is using it to draw Turkey into the Russian orbit. He calculated that President Trump would have to suspend Turkey from the F-35 stealth fighter programme when it purchased the S-400 because of the danger of the Russians deciphering the aircraft’s stealth technology. The F-35 technology is the crown jewel and if it were copied, stolen or compromised by Russia, the damage would be immense. Trump’s advisors are well aware of the operational risk of exercising the adversary systems in the same airspace, giving Moscow the possibility of collecting war-game data on the F-35s performance.
As if to drive the wedge during President Erdogan’s visit, Putin made sure that the two would be seen closely examining the Russian Su-57 advanced fighter, announcing afterwards that Turkey was considering purchasing Russia’s answer to the F-35. He also announced that Russia was “ready to offer flights on the Su30SM advance multirole fighter aircraft to Turkish pilots”. If Erdogan takes up the offer it would mark the first joint training between Russian and Turkish pilots and the first time the air forces of a NATO member and Russia engage in drills aimed directly at operability.
Any pretence that Turkey is a full democracy has long evaporated and President Erdogan is increasingly unrestrained in what he autocratically sees to be Turkey’s, and often his own, interests. Nevertheless, in purchasing the S-400 the cost to Turkey has been enormous, losing out not only in technology transfer, but also the opportunity to earn billions of dollars in export opportunities. Turkey was not just a future recipient of more than 100 F-35s, but also a co-producer of the aircraft, manufacturing many of the components, including parts of the fuselage. President Putin is laughing all the way to the bank, pocketing billions of dollars from S-400 sales, while successfully lobbing a hand grenade into the relationship between two critical and long-standing NATO allies.
Why did President Erdogan persist with the purchase of the S-400, knowing the likely uproar in Washington and the certain penalties? Turkey has never had a long-range air defence system and has always been content to rely on NATO allies deploying their American Patriot missiles on Turkish soil. One reason given by Ankara is that the S-400 provided Turkey with significant high-tech transfer that came with the deal as well as Erdogan’s desire to improve relations with Moscow. The purchase could be seen as a statement of an independent foreign policy and a move towards a long-standing goal to build a strong domestic defence industry. There is another, somewhat bizarre, reason doing the rounds among the Opposition in Istanbul, which is to protect Turkey from its own planes in the event of another coup. President Erdogan will never forget the night of 15 July 2016, when the putschists flew the country’s US-made F-16 to bomb Parliament in Ankara, the first time the city had been under attack since 1402. Could Erdogan want the S-400 just to protect himself?
Whatever Erdogan’s intentions for purchasing the S-400, there are serious questions now confronting the US and NATO. How much further will Turkey deteriorate and distance itself from the Alliance’s norms? Will the purchase lead to a further deepening of Turkish relations with Russia? How is it possible for a member of a defence organisation to purchase weapons from its perceived enemy? If there is a further downgrading of security ties and Turkey leaves NATO, an organisation perceived to have successfully maintained world peace for the last 70 years, we shall all sleep less safely in our beds.