Analysis

Into Putin’s Arms: How a Failed Coup Turned Turkey Into NATO’s Biggest Headache

Arrival of Russian S-400 missile defense system probably won’t signal the end of Turkey’s military involvement with West, but will likely scupper F-35 deal with the U.S.

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, the F-35 at the Berlin Air Show and  S-400 missile air defence systems in Moscow.
AFP / Tatyana Makeyeva, Reuters / Axel Schmidt, Reuters

It may just be a coincidence, but there could hardly be a more fitting week for Russia to start shipping the new S-400 missile defense system to Turkey than the third anniversary of the failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As rogue F-16 pilots bombed the parliament and presidential palace in Ankara, and Erdogan was nearly shot down on his flight back to Istanbul after evading capture at his coastal villa, Western governments held their breath, not daring to voice their hopes that the autocratic and anti-Western leader might be overthrown by a more convenient group of generals.

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When offered a vacuum left empty by Western leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin — as he has done so many times — jumped in first, expressing his solidarity with Erdogan.

It wasn’t an obvious move. Not only are Russia and Turkey historic rivals, but they were also on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war with Russia propping up the Assad regime and Turkey supporting a wide range of rebel groups. Eight months earlier, in November 2015, Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet on its border with Syria.

But Erdogan’s uneasy relationship with Western leaders provided a golden opportunity for Putin to weaken NATO, and since the failed coup the two have grown closer.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivering a speech at a rally to honor the victims of the July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt, in Istanbul, July 15, 2019.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The supply of the S-400, despite repeated warnings and threats from the United States concerning the implications of a major NATO member fielding a key Russian weapons system, has sealed that relationship. At least for as long as Erdogan and Putin are in power.

Turkey has promised that its new S-400 system will not be integrated into wider NATO air defense networks and will only be used to protect its territory from ballistic missiles. The leaders of NATO and the Pentagon are rightly suspicious that this will not be sufficient to prevent Russian intelligence officers — embedded with the team that will train Turkish personnel on the new system — from gaining crucial information. NATO’s southeastern approaches are now more vulnerable.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has the kind of admiring relationship with Erdogan he has with other autocrats, may hold back from announcing formal sanctions on Turkey. But it is almost inconceivable that the Turkish Air Force will receive any of the 30 F-35 stealth fighters it ordered (out of a total requirement of 120). The training flights of Turkish F-35 pilots have already been suspended in the United States.

Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s manufacturer, has significant influence on Trump, but is likely to prefer losing the Turkish order rather than seeing its product’s unique capabilities squandered.

The S-400 is the premier Russian anti-aircraft system the F-35 is designed to evade. If Turkey were to receive the aircraft now, it could develop tactics that would enable the S-400 to detect F-35s, giving the Russians valuable information and significantly degrading America’s strategic air power advantage.

Losing the F-35 will deny Turkey’s air force an upgrade to fifth-generation technology. And while it could possibly buy stealth fighters from Russia or China, these are still under development, will not be available for export anytime soon and are unlikely to be as capable as the F-35.

Until this weekend, there were still those in the Pentagon who hoped that the threat of withholding the jet would cause Turkey to hesitate and delay acceptance of the S-400. But Erdogan is not backing down.

First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system being unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport near Ankara, July 12, 2019.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

Turkey was always a relatively awkward NATO member: the least-democratic nation of the North Atlantic alliance long before Erdogan came along, and coming close to war with another member, Greece, a number of times. However, throughout the Cold War and beyond, Turkey remained a valuable partner in confronting the Soviet Union and, after its dissolution, contributed to many of the alliance’s operations. In recent years, though, Turkey was no longer seen as an ally of the West.

Throughout most of the Syrian war, Turkey pursued its own separate agenda, arming jihadists and allowing Islamic State volunteers to pass through its territory. When the United States began bombing ISIS targets in 2014, Turkey refused to let its aircraft use the Incirlik air base.

Since the failed military coup of July 2016, Erdogan has purged the armed forces of officers who worked with NATO — replacing them largely with anti-Western loyalists — and increased military coordination with Russia and Iran. His intelligence services have been led by pro-Iranian officials for years.

There is no precedent for kicking a nation out of NATO, and no one is seriously contemplating doing that to Turkey. In raw numbers of personnel and equipment, it has the second-largest army in the organization (and subtracting U.S. units based outside of Europe and the Middle East, it has the largest). Turkey provides NATO with bases close to Russia, though these are less valuable in an era of satellite surveillance, global strike capabilities and long-endurance drones.

Despite the tensions with the West, Turkey is not interested in leaving NATO either. The upkeep of the alliance’s bases contributes greatly to its economy and its military still gains much from membership. NATO has little choice but to adapt itself to a new relationship with one of its key members.

For Israeli security officials, this is a familiar predicament. For decades, Turkey was Israel’s closest strategic ally in the region, until Erdogan gradually shut the alliance down. “Erdogan hates Israel and is clearly an anti-Semite as well,” says one senior Israeli general. “That doesn’t mean Turkey is an enemy. Erdogan hasn’t ended the diplomatic relations, trade between the two countries is still strong, and there is reason to hope that once Erdogan is gone we’ll have the same level of military cooperation again.”

Israel found other nearby alternatives by improving military ties with Greece and Cyprus, where its aircraft and commandos now routinely train. With Turkey now less reliable for NATO as well, there is an expectation in Jerusalem that the organization will rely more heavily on Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean and the wider region. Until Erdogan goes.

The U.S. Air Force in Europe holds regular seminars on warfare tactics with other NATO air forces that have ordered the F-35, to which Israel is invited as well. Israeli pilots returning from these seminars reported friendly exchanges with their Turkish counterparts. Now it seems that yet another avenue of cooperation has closed down.