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Turkey S-400 Purchase

March 21, 2019

Turkey S-400 Purchase

Turkey’s S-400 and US missile defense system purchase debacle

Turkish and American ties have been tense over the past several months due to Ankara’s decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile system. This tension came to a head last week as the date for Russia to fulfill the agreement comes closer.  Last year, Ankara signed an agreement worth $2.5 billion with Moscow for the S-400 missile system. However, the agreement has created concern, pushing Washington to resort to pressuring Ankara to forego its intensions to acquire Russian missiles. Washington has recently announced to that if Turkey were to go ahead with the purchase S-400 missiles, then it will not be able to obtain advanced F-35 fighter jets in addition to losing its chance of purchasing anti-missile systems from the United States. So far, Congress has announced that the schedule for the delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey has been pushed back, indicating the extent of Washington’s concerns.


Last month, the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip to notify him of President Trump’s concerns about the purchase of the S-400 system. Such an overt declaration of concern flies in the face of President Erdogan’s usual comments affirming that he has a “positive dialogue” with Trump.


Despite such concerns expressed by Washington, President Erdogan remains undeterred. At a recent press conference, he said there was no point in discussing this matter further because “a deal has been struck with Russia”, noting that Turkey will stand by the agreement. As the United States has raised the possibility of revoking the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and a possible loss of anti-missile systems, Erdogan has also gone one step further and said Turkey would even be interested in buying more sophisticated missile defense systems such as S-500 from Russia.


Turkey’s deployment of the S-400 missiles has also raised the questions of whether Turkey really belongs to the Western alliance, especially as a NATO member. This question came to the fore after the Mike Pence issued a warning in February during the Munich Security Conference by saying “United States will not “stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries”.


The Russian-made S-400 missile systems, which come with eight launchers and 32 missiles, have the capability to target stealth warplanes like the F-35 fighters produced by the United States, creating greater concerns among NATO members. In fact, the F-35 jets that Turkey hopes to buy cannot be operated in conjunction with the S-400. An anonymous US official recently referred to Turkey’s agreement to purchase Russian S-400 missile systems as a “national security problem for NATO countries”. While noting that this deal cannot be construed as Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO, he was quick to highlight that the fact that these two systems cannot be used simultaneously poses a threat to NATO’s security.


Turkey’s insistence on buying the S-400 runs the risk of creating a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Ankara and can even spur the US administration to impose an arms embargo on Turkey under a US law known as “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”, undermining Ankara’s purchase of American weaponry. It should be noted that both US and Turkey were at loggerheads last August due to Ankara’s detention of an American Pastor (Brunson), who has since been released. Relations have also encountered stumbling blocks over both countries’ divergent views on Iran sanctions and America’s support for the Kurdish forces in Syria.


While Turkey’s overt pivot towards Russia seemed an exception among NATO members since 2016, the recent explicit coordination with Russia and China by Germany and Italy is helping Turkey mainstream and normalize its strategic hedging. If this trend continues in Europe and the MENA region the U.S. will face an increasingly uphill battle to coordinate with historical allies.


Vahid Yucesoy for iStrategic