Opinion

Turkey and Russian S-400s: Erdogan Just Made a Strategic Blunder of Epic Proportions

Erdogan's insistence on delivery of the Russian-made missiles, a $2.5 billion waste of money, has invited severe U.S. retaliation - and turned Turkey from an ally of NATO into its antagonist

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a news conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia April 8, 2019
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Last Friday, Turkey received its first consignment of Russian S-400s, a missile defense system designed to shoot down NATO planes. The purchase was a strategic blunder, perhaps Ankara’s worst since its 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

Then, Ankara faced international condemnation, a U.S. arms embargo and a sharp decline in relations with the West, not least from what became the European Union - to which it is inconceivable that Turkey will ever gain accession before withdrawing from the island. 

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Despite repeated warnings that buying S-400s would likely lead to the degrading of U.S.-Turkish relations, Ankara went ahead with the purchase anyway, begging the question: Why?

>> In Missile Deal With Russia, Turkey Shows There’s No Need to Fear the United States

One explanation is Turkey’s loss of faith in the U.S., especially since Washington armed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against ISIS in Syria. Ankara sees the group as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which it has been fighting for decades.

Ankara is also angry because Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher and Pennsylvania resident whom Ankara claims is the architect of the July 2016 attempted coup, has yet to face an extradition hearing.

There are also arguments based less on Ankara's antipathy for Washington and more on its decision to assert its autonomy.

One might view the S400 issue as an expression of Turkey’s right to purchase equipment from whoever it chooses. Added to this is Turkey’s propensity, especially under the leadership of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, for delusions of grandeur and the desire to see the descendants of the Ottoman Empire independent of the orbits of both the U.S. and Russia and instead, turn on its own axis while assuming its natural place as leader of the Muslim world.

Conspiratorial notions make the rounds in Turkey alleging that it was the U.S. which was really behind the 2016 attempted coup. And as it was U.S. made F-16s, commandeered from Turkey's air force by the coup leaders, which dropped bombs on Turkey’s Grand National Assembly during the night of the coup, Turkey, the somewhat twisted logic continues, needs non-NATO hardware in order for the government to protect itself against future putschists.

However, if this line of reasoning really is a representation of Ankara’s thinking, it would highlight that Turkey regards its domestic foes as remaining as big a threat, if not bigger, than its external enemies. This a sign and symptom of a weak state - hardly a country that Turkey’s traditional allies should consider an effective strategic partner.

President Erdogan probably thought that he won concessions from U.S. President Donald Trump, who struck a conciliatory tone during their meeting on the side lines of last month’s G20 Summit. However, Erdogan is mistaken.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and U.S President Donald Trump gesture during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019
,AP

Now that Turkey is actually receiving S400s, Washington is obligated to implement at least some of the sanctions proscribed by the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

These may include the prevention of Turkey receiving loans from U.S. or international financial institutions, the denial of visas and export licenses, the rejection of property purchases, and even the prohibition of banking transactions through U.S. financial institutions.

And all this is happening while Turkey is still counting on goodwill from the U.S. Treasury to give a light fine for the Turkish state owned Halkbank’s violation of the Iranian Sanctions Act - and while Turkey is in the middle of a severe economic downturn.

In military terms, the S-400s represent a $2.5 billion waste of money. Although S-400s are sophisticated – they can shoot down stealth fighters - they do not form an integrated defense system. For that to happen, Turkey would also need Russian medium range SA-17s and short-range SA-24s. Instead, Turkey has British Rapiers, American MIM-23s, Turkish made PMADS and radar systems which are mainly American, British or French. 

It looks like the S-400s will be stationed in Ankara. The only benefit of this is in the event of another coup: if F16s are sent to bomb Ankara, the S-400s can shoot them down, hopefully before they close on the densely populated capital city.

Alternatively, they may be located in the southeast against PKK positions, a ridiculous proposition, seeing that the PKK is not in possession of weapons that would necessitate S-400s. This location would also put the Russian system in close proximity to NATO bases, risking the leaking of sensitive information of NATO hardware to Russia.

A Russian military cargo plane carrying S-400 missile defense system from Russia to the Murted military airbase in Ankara. July 12, 2019
AFP

Last month, Patrick Shanahan, then acting U.S. secretary of defense, wrote to his Turkish counterpart warning that if Ankara received the S400s, Turkey would be expelled from the F-35 program. Already, Washington was looking for alternative manufacturers of F-35 components and resolved to stop training additional Turkish pilots, a monumental blow to the Turkish airforce.

However, Shanahan’s letter also stated that Turkey was negatively affecting the "ability to enhance or maintain co-operation with the United States and within NATO."

Although there is no mechanism to expel a NATO member, Turkey’s receipt of S-400s is such a breach of trust and confidence that Turkey will now be, informally at least, isolated within NATO’s different military and civilian structures.

NATO members will think twice about using Turkish bases and military infrastructure and seek alternative arrangements in nearby countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Jordan. With continued tensions between Turkey and EU member Cyprus and NATO member Greece in the East Mediterranean, Turkey will be seen as an antagonist rather than an ally.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian hardware has thrown its strategic relations with the U.S. and NATO into a dark abyss from where, at least for now, there is no light in sight.

Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of “The New Turkey and Its Discontents” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1