Russian missiles: a stress test to Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and the West

The CIA, as well as a number of other intelligence agencies, must be busy nowadays trying to find out when and where the first battery of Russian S-400 missiles will be delivered to Turkey. That is if they haven’t already been delivered by now. Defying heavy sanction threats by the Donald Trump administration in the U.S., Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan had said on July 1 that the first party would arrive in Turkey “within ten days”. Ten days have now passed with still no official statement about the delivery.
This doesn’t mean that Turkey has or will cancel the purchase. If there had still been a leeway in this situation, an ultimatum-like letter sent on June 6 from Pentagon to the Turkish Defence Ministry has literally made it impossible to back down; let alone Erdoğan’s AKP government, no Turkish government could or would have cancelled the deal after those blunt threats. Unconfirmed scenarios about this situation are being produced in Ankara. One of them is that Erdoğan might prefer to announce the delivery in a particularly commemorative setting: the third anniversary of the foiled military coup on July 15, which could serve as a message regarding the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen living in the U.S. despite being indicted to mastermind the attempt.
The reason why there is no statement about the S-400 delivery could simply be that Turkish and Russian officials are keeping the information as a top secret from other parties for security reasons; Turkey being a NATO member and Russia being NATO’s adversary.
It will be a rare example for a NATO ally to turn down demands and defy the sanction threats by the U.S. whilst cooperating with Russia; a move which can be interpreted as defying the authority of the U.S. in Western collective defence. In American eyes, it will be a bad example for others; other NATO members, especially European members who are fed up with getting pushed around by Trump’s administration. On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be happy to watch a major rift within NATO, all because of a Russian weapon with cutting-edge technology.
The questions now are; 1- When and where the S-400 batteries will be deployed, 2- Whether they will be activated and if they will be activated in connection with Turkey’s NATO–integrated air defence system; 3- When and how the U.S. sanctions will be implemented; 4- What will be Turkey’s reaction to the sanctions.
Turkey had closed down its bases for American use in 1975 –for three years- in reaction to an arms embargo due to the ban of opium farming and the 1974 Turkish military intervention to Cyprus which ended up causing the division of the Island into Turkish and Greek parts. The American cancellation of the delivery of Turkey’s F-35 fighter jets in reaction to the S-400s might have consequences, which might give harm Turkey but not only Turkey. Both Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made separate warnings that such a move might harm NATO air defence as well.
The new U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, David Satterfield arrived in the city under those circumstances on July 10, as Erdoğan’s calendar for delivery was about to expire. Satterfield is a Middle East expert who has served a number of countries in the region including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, worked as the director of Arab and Arab-Israeli Affairs in the State Department and worked as the American observer of the Astana Process between Turkey, Russia and Iran about Syria. As the first U.S. Ambassador to Ankara after two years, he hasn’t got an easy job.
It is considered that American sanctions might also target the Turkish economy, which is not in good shape with declining growth in the last two quarters, increasing living costs, unemployment and a currency that is vulnerable to political interventions especially by the U.S. Earlier in 2019 Trump has threatened Turkey with “devastating” its economy if Turkish army were to attack Turkey’s arch-enemy, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party-PKK’s Syria arm, which has been collaborating with the American forces against ISIS since 2014. Trump said in a press conference in Tokyo recently that he had phoned Erdoğan to stop the Turkish army’s campaign. That Tweet by Trump had caused another crisis hitting the Turkish lira against the USD.
And it’s not only the U.S. Due to the gas exploration rights rift around the island of Cyprus; the European Union has also threatened Turkey with sanctions as well. Half of Turkey’s exports is with EU countries and a considerable bulk of foreign investments to Turkey comes from the EU. The subject has no apparent link with the S-400 rift with the U.S. but nevertheless puts additional pressure on President Erdoğan who suffered a defeat in the last local elections.
Erdoğan feels that not giving up in the S-400 move is vital to redefine Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and the West. The load already exceeds Turkey’s existing need to have a modern air and missile defence; unlike in domestic political and economic matters, polls show that the government has reasonable support on this issue. A recent, respected survey by Kadir Has University in Istanbul showed that 44 percent said that the S-400 purchase should be completed no matter the consequences and only 24.5 percent opposed.
The Russian S-400 missiles case is turning into a stress test of the relations between Turkey and the U.S. and more generally between Turkey and the West.
The parameters of this stress test could be listed as follows:

  1. Will the U.S. risk losing Turkey because of Russian missiles, where the gap would most likely be tried to be filled in by even more Russian influence?
  2. Will Turkey take the risk of its political and economic ties to be severed with the U.S. and perhaps with the EU as well?
  3. Can Turkey rely on Russia, given the two countries’ centuries-long problematic relationship?
  4. For how long can Turkish voters carry the worsening bill of the economy?
  5. Will this pressure lead up to a snap election where Erdoğan would highlight national security and survival themes?
    In the days ahead, S-400-related tensions could be felt even more intensely.

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