Date: 22 July 2019 Author: Grzegorz Kuczyński
Is Turkey NATO’s Weak Link?
Turkey has received the first parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system, all this despite Donald Trump’s warnings and the Pentagon’s threats. Imposing U.S. sanctions on Ankara is inevitable, but Turkey’s purchase of cutting-edge Russian military technology poses a thorny problem for all its fellow NATO allies, a situation from which Russia gains most.
Russia sent to Turkey another shipment of its S-400 missile defense system on July 13, Turkish National Defense Ministry was quoted as saying. A fourth Russian cargo plane landed at Murted Air Base in Turkey. Ankara’s determination to acquire Russian-made missile systems will raise the ire of both its NATO peers and the United States. And equipping the Turkish army with the S-400s poses a threat to the security of the entire Alliance. It is to expect that NATO will drastically reduce cooperation with Ankara. But there are also increasing voices that Turkey, with its behavior, is asking to be excluded from NATO. So far, Turkey has been automatically subject to U.S. sanctions under CAATSA, which prohibits Washington’s military partners from concluding military deals with Russia. A group of U.S. congressmen released a statement calling for canceling the sale of the F-35 fighters and imposing sanctions on Turkish officials involved in signing the armaments deal. With American restrictions being inevitable, the question is to what extent punitive measures will be introduced. But it will be up to Trump to decide whether Washington will eventually trigger sanctions against Ankara, a step that will surely spark off an even greater economic crisis in the country.
Russian-made S-400s would present a threat to U.S. F-35 fighter jets, with Turkey participating in its production process and holding interests in acquiring a batch of aircraft. The S-400 radar systems could be developed to detect F-35 jets, making them easily identifiable. NATO also spoke out against the Russian-Turkish deal, claiming that the Russian weapon is not compatible with the Alliance’s military systems. Washington has formally launched the process of removing Turkey from the F-35 program. The dispute over the S-400s is neither the first nor the most severe reason for strains in Turkish-Western ties. In the wake of Turkey’s failed military coup in 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Turkish government for forceful repression of political opponents while warning that this undermined Ankara’s further NATO membership. Relations between Ankara and NATO’s headquarters in Brussels were equally severed by “a witch-hunt” against Turkey’s NATO military staff after the failed coup d’état.
Alliance of convenience
For many decades this has been a geopolitical marriage of convenience. With its historically grounded hostility to Russia, Turkey surged as a perfect U.S. ally after World War II. If the Cold War had turned hot, a mighty Turkish army would have successfully bound the Soviets both in the Balkans and the Caucasus. The Americans gave the Turks nuclear guarantees in exchange for an alliance and the blocking of the USSR from the south. With NATO’s second-largest military forces and close ties to Washington, Ankara served to obstruct Moscow’s expansion to the Middle East. But for several years Turkey has been gradually, albeit consistently, entering the Russian sphere of influence, even despite the fact that Ankara and Moscow were on the brink of war after the former downed a Russian warplane near Turkey-Syria border in the autumn of 2015. Ankara’s crackdown on its fellow NATO allies has by no means been triggered by Erdogan’s authoritarian rules or the ongoing Islamization of the country. Tensions ran high after the Syrian conflict broke out, with Turkey’s holding grudges against NATO member states, accusing them of having left Ankara alone in the face of the growing threat from Damascus. While saying so, Erdogan did not mean al-Assad or jihadists, but Kurds whose YPG militia got U.S. support in the fight against the Islamic State. Also, Barack Obama’s shaky policy regarding the Syrian regime has left its mark; back in time when Ankara had still openly acted in favor of bringing down the al-Assad government, Obama, who was to a great extent convinced by Moscow, refused to take forceful action to punish Damascus for using chemical weapons, contrary to what his administration had earlier announced.
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Russia’s firm entrance to the Syrian conflict became a decisive point, initially leading to strains in ties with Ankara that ran high after Turkey had shot down a Russian aircraft. Moscow’s response consisted in boosting military involvement in the region and waging the trade war with Turkey, back then in favor of toppling the government of Bashar al-Assad. Six months passed since that moment, marking a sharp tilt in Turkish-Russian relations and prompting the two countries to forget about past resentments and start to cooperate. Ankara seeks to foster both an economic aspect of this partnership, including Russian trade outlets, tourists, Russian-sourced gas and building a nuclear power plant, and a common stance on Syria. Having no other choice to choose its partners in Syria’s war theater, Erdogan focused on bolstering cooperation with Moscow and Tehran under the Astana format. Ankara’s ties with Israel have dramatically deteriorated while those with the United States are getting worse and worse, given that the latter offers firm support to the Kurds, a useful ally in the war against the Islamic State in Syria. Also, Turkey has solidified cooperation with Qatar, hinting worse relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But what makes matters worse is that this strikes a blow against NATO’s internal cohesion. Turkey has long made efforts to procure air defense missile systems; a few years later, the country had almost sealed the deal with China but had to resign amid pressure from Ankara’s Western allies. Having taken advantage of ever-closer cooperation with Putin, Erdogan inked an agreement to purchase Russian S-400s. Turkey and Russia signed in late 2017 an accord to supply Ankara with surface-to-air missile batteries, worth $2.5 billion. Since then, Washington had made several unsuccessful attempts to dissuade Turkey from acquiring Russian-made military hardware, also by offering at the end of 2018 to sell air defense systems Patriot for $3.5 billion. And Donald Trump is right when blaming the previous presidential administration for what is taking place now, with both Barack Obama and the then Congress having impeded the delivery of Patriots missiles to Ankara. This, along with Turkey’s ever-growing isolation in the West, played to the advantage of Moscow that cleverly ignited and co-created the conflict between Turkey on the one hand and the United States and NATO on the other.
Ankara’s determination to move ahead the S-400 deal made both Washington and the other allies in NATO question whether Turkey’s membership in the Alliance makes sense, all the more so that the state no longer has such strategic importance it used to enjoy in the Cold War era. But will a plan to kick Turkey out from NATO structures offer benefits to all parties to the dispute? When first shipments of S-400s arrived on Turkish soil on July 12, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar held a telephone conversation with Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper. In a statement released following the talks, Turkish Defense Ministry said there is no change in Ankara’s strategic orientation, adding that a deterioration in relations would not serve the interests of Turkey, the U.S. or NATO. And this happens to be true. Over the past sixty years NATO has heavily invested in a relationship with Turkey, also helping to expand its military infrastructure. And if Turkey is expelled from NATO, the Alliance will no longer be able to shape the situation in strategic straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. But Turkey is not interested in leaving NATO structures, though as for the Kurdish issue, the United States and Turkey are now on opposite sides of the barricades. But this does not change the fact that Turkey and Russia were, are and will be geopolitical rivals. And what will happen in Syria, also in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib, will serve as a brand-new turning point in the relations between Moscow and Ankara. But Erdogan is now seeking to purchase the S-400s, being conscious that the West will refrain from running tensions high. Ankara therefore will attempt to weave between Moscow on the one hand and Washington and Brussels on the other in a bid to reinforce its position and achieve its aims. Although both sides will face a tough task to reach a compromise, especially after Ankara purchased Russian-made weapons, Turkey and its Western allies will undoubtedly hope to do so. Excluding from NATO a strategically located country with such numerous army units does not offer benefits to the Alliance and a similar solution is not at all sought by Turkey, a country left alone somewhere between Russia, Iran and Syria. And even if they are now tactical allies, nobody knows what will happen next.
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