Author: Kashif Hussain
Over the last couple of months, a heated debate as to whether Turkey would deploy the purchased regiment of S-400 batteries from Russia or whether it would succumb to American pressure has engaged policy circles across the globe. Ankara has, however, maintained that the delay in the deployment of the air defence system is caused by ongoing global pandemic and the country will ultimately bring the system into operation. The geopolitical compulsions behind the deal and implications it bears on the restive region also demand that Ankara not back off from operationalising the system.
A deal worth of $2.5 billion on loan payments was finalised by Russia in September 2017 to deliver one regiment of its most sophisticated air defence systems to Turkey. Moscow airlifted the batteries in July 2019, followed by the delivery of over 120 state of the art surface-to-air missiles. Interestingly, clauses on cooperation for technology sharing and joint development in the signed accord, and resolve on part of both the countries to secure an agreement for another regiment of the S-400 system indicate a lasting defence partnership between Turkey and Russia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed the development as the most important agreement in the country’s modern history and said,
“Turkey is not getting prepared for a war. These missile defence systems are meant to ensure peace and security in our country”.
Addressing the concerns of Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners, Erdogan reiterated that the national armed forces would control the S-400 systems. The United States (US) led NATO suspects that Russian presence and involvement in Turkey’s air defences, operating alongside the F-35, would enable Moscow to garner all sorts of significant intelligence.
The US suspended Turkey from the F-35 programme urging it to reconsider the deal with Moscow. However, Turkey is adamant that the two matters (S-400 and F-35) be dealt with separately and cautioned that failing to do so would heavily cost the states involved in the F-35 programme. Turkey has contributed some $1.4 billion to the project. According to experts the row could have severe implications on the future of NATO-Turkey relations; threatening to impact the latter’s standing within the alliance. Notwithstanding these developments, the S-400 deal appears to be a blessing in disguise for Ankara, Moscow and the region.
In September 2015, Russia entered the Syrian civil war on the invitation of President Bashar al Assad primarily to halt Daesh advances which had already occupied a good chunk of territories in the country’s north and east. Two months later, Turkey, which had been supporting the Free Syrian Army and moderate rebels against Assad’s forces, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet. As the situation worsened, a failed military coup was undertaken against Erdogan by people aligned with Fethullah Gülen, who has been taking shelter in the US.
In Syria too, the US continued training and aiding Kurdish forces. Since they remain a key national security concern for Ankara, relations with Washington became even worse. More importantly, the civil war in Syria and subsequent refugee crisis and rise of xenophobia in Europe, all indicate that Turkey becoming a permanent member of the European Union (EU) is very unlikely, thus reducing the country’s expectations and neutralising its interests with the West. For more than a half decade, Turkey remains in a persistent struggle against Daesh, the Kurds, an unsupportive US, and the refugee crisis.
Similarly, Russia’s annexation of Crimea brought the country’s relations with America and the EU to their lowest ebb, with both imposing severe sanctions on Moscow. Additionally, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, its fight against Daesh, and its stand against NATO’s drive to bring about a regime change in Damascus have each consumed a good chunk of Russian resources and made the country realise that it cannot afford any other confrontations.
Russia’s presence on the other side of the Black Sea after taking Crimea and its involvement in Syria would have remained a threat for Turkey, had Moscow not sold the S-400 batteries to Ankara. Although there exist differences between the two and both the nations have gone to war with each other in the distant past, the S-400 deal would help them mitigate disparities and keep the region away from any future Russia-Turkey war. Perhaps that’s the reason why Erdogan called it “the most important agreement in our modern history”.
As far as Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 programme and the countries standing in NATO alliance is concerned, Russia has made a proposal to sell a certain number of its Su-35 warplanes to Turkey and co-manufacturing some components of the jet. Turkey’s termination from the F-35 programme means more contracts to Russian conglomerates and more chances of Ankara breaking away from NATO.
Turkey can bargain its position due to the availability of an alternative for almost everything which the US led West offers. In contrast, NATO stands to lose a key partner providing it with a giant territory and key location on the southern flank of the alliance. Additionally, the lack of Ankara’s crucial services for the F-35 programme has been hampering its production. The US and other NATO states have no option other than taking this development as an opportunity – as Turkey having better relations with Russia could play the role of a balancer – and adjust Turkey back into the F-35 fold. On the other hand, Turkey must not hesitate to deploy the S-400 regiment to keep itself, Russia, and the restive region away from any major conflict.
Yet, in order to avoid a major rift with the US and within NATO, and to improve its chances of falling back into the F-35 programme, Ankara could offer buying the Patriot system rather than purchasing another battery of S-400. In case Ankara’s ties with the US led NATO deteriorate after the deployment of the S-400 and the latter opts to remove its existing military equipment from the former’s territory, Turkey might go for another regiment of Russian made batteries to further fortify its western defences.
Originally Published on The Express Tribune