Turkey-US Rift Over S-400 Could Escalate

The US reaction has gone beyond what Turkey expected, but it seems unlikely that Ankara will scrap the S-400 deal.
S-400 deal, S-400 missile system, Russia, Russia news, Turkey, Turkey news, Turkish news, US news, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Erdogan

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels, Belgium on 7/11/2018 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

July 24, 2019 21:06 EDT

On July 12, Turkey announced that the first shipment of the Russian-supplied S-400 missile defense system arrived at the Mürted air base. The US Department of Defense responded by removing Turkey from its F-35 fighter jets program, on the grounds that it “cannot coexist” with Russian equipment. The deal has put a strain on ties between Ankara and Washington, given that Turkey has been a strategic member of NATO since 1952 and a crucial ally of the US.

Turkey’s Rationale

From Turkey’s perspective, the procurement of the S-400 is necessary for its air defense and national security due to the country’s location in a volatile region. Ever since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, coupled with the cross-border fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the US — Ankara has set its sights on improving its aerial defense.

In 2013, Turkey wanted to purchase the Patriot air and missile defense system from the US, but “negotiations were repeatedly scuttled” under the Obama administration. As a result, Turkey opened a bidding process for countries to pitch their own missile systems. China was quick to snap this up before Ankara canceled the deal in November 2015 over objections from NATO allies. Instead, Turkey said it was exploring the option of developing the system domestically before it began negotiating with Russia. In 2017, Turkey agreed to purchase the S-400 defense system in a deal worth $2.5 billion. Despite Washington’s warnings over a NATO member obtaining arms from Russia, on the grounds that the S-400 is designed to shoot down US aircraft like the F-35, Ankara’s decision was final.

In April, the US announced that it was halting shipments of F-35 stealth aircraft equipment to Turkey, which followed a 2018 Senate bill to block the sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 jets to Ankara due to its detention of US citizen Andrew Brunson and the purchase of the S-400 system. Brunson, a pastor, was detained for two years over alleged links to the Gülen movement (FETÖ), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, after the failed coup attempt in 2016.

The US has not hesitated in saying that there will be consequences to the S-400 deal. In April, a group of senators threatened Turkey with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it continued with its purchase of the Russian system. The CAATSA was passed in 2017 to impose sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia.

Buying From Russia

Turkey views the S-400 as being essential for the protection of its airspace. But the installment of a Russian defense system in a NATO member state gives Moscow a strategic advantage. Turkey’s dependency on a Russian-supplied air defense system could serve as a reference for Moscow in its negotiations with other countries. Hence, the S-400 deal is more important than simply another sale.

Ever since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, relations between Washington and Moscow have been strained. As a result, this has led to harsh economic sanctions against Russia and the termination of the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Now, Turkey finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

On July 3, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, the Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters that the “S-400 air and missile defense system is incompatible with the F-35 program.” For the US, there is fear that Russian intelligence equipment based in Turkey could be used to gather data from the F-35 aircraft. Despite Turkey’s insistence that the S-400 system would not present a problem, the US has not changed its position.

Avoiding Sanctions

US sanctions are not the best interest of Turkey. In 2018, Turkey-US relations were affected after the detention of Pastor Brunson, which resulted in US sanctions on two Turkish ministries. Diplomatic ties improved following Brunson’s release in October that year and the lifting of sanctions, but the Turkish economy has experienced economic difficulties since the lira plummeted last year. Considering the situation, implementing policies to shore up the country’s overall economy is necessary.

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The S-400 deal was discussed by Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the recent G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. On June 29, President Trump said, “Turkey is a NATO member and was not treated fairly,” in reference to the Obama administration’s stance over Patriot missiles in 2013. Regarding the possibility of sanctions, President Erdoğan stated, “We have heard from him [Trump] personally that this would not happen.”

Despite Turkey’s optimism with the US, the situation has not gone according to plan. In a statement issued on July 17 by the press secretary, the White House stated that “Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.” Furthermore, the Pentagon said Turkey “will no longer receive more than $9 billion in projected work share related to the F-35 over the life of the program.”

The US reaction has gone beyond what Turkey expected, but it seems unlikely that Ankara will scrap the S-400 deal. On the one hand, President Trump’s statement at the G-20 created a mood of optimism. Yet official statements indicate a possibility of US sanctions on Turkey. If Trump decides on imposing modest sanctions, this would not be far from what Ankara expects.

Currently, foreign investors are waiting to see what might happen in Turkey-US relations after the delivery of the S-400 is completed in April 2020. While the decision over F-35 aircraft is worrying for Turkey considering the fact that it has invested in the US fighter jet program, the key concern is whether the US will apply CAATSA sanctions or not. At the moment, the removal of Turkey from the F-35 program has not impacted the economy or the value of the lira.

NATO Allies

If President Trump decides to implement sanctions, the level of severity is what really matters. As a result, the current situation might lead to Turkey and Russia becoming even closer. If the US enforces sanctions, the relationship between Ankara and Washington will experience further days in the shade. The move could also lead to problems not only for Turkey and the US, but also with Europe in terms of security.

Yet as a member of NATO, Turkey is pivotal for the US due to its location as a bridge between Europe and Asia. The White House has pointed to the “strategic relationship with Turkey … [that] is multi-layered, and not solely focused on the F-35.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has reiterated this by saying that “Turkey as a NATO member is much more than the S-400.”

In light of these series of events, Turkey and the US will need to work hard to find a constructive solution to their impasse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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