Turkish National Defence Ministry announced that the components of Russian S-400 missiles arrived in Mürted air base near Ankara on July 12. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that the purchase program continued with “no problems” and will continue as planned. The delivery has started in spite of strong objections ad sanction threats by Turkey’s NATO ally the U.S. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has said that there would be no paddling back from his deal with the Russian President Vladimir Putin to purchase 4 batteries of S-400 air and missile defense systems for $2.5 billion, defying warnings by President Donald Trump’s administration in the U.S. that S-400’s would be a risk for its new generation F-35 fighter jets. Trump had admitted in June 29 meeting with Erdoğan in Japan that Turkey decided to purchase Russia missiles after being refused by the Barack Obama administration to but America Partiot missiles. Congress insisted that Turkey should not get F-35, despite being a co-producer and be subject to CAATSA sanctions if it does cancel the S-400 purchase. Erdoğan has said o July 1 that the delivery would start in ten days.
The delivery of the Russia missiles to Turkey is 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 might set 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 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- Whether they will be activated and if they will be activated in connection with Turkey’s NATO–integrated air defence system; 2- When and how the U.S. sanctions will be implemented; 3- 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. The other key diplomat who had served under bush ad Obama administrations is James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara ad currently Special Syria Envoy of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- Can Turkey rely on Russia, given the two countries’ centuries-long problematic relationship?
- For how long can Turkish voters carry the worsening bill of the economy?
- 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.