How alarming is Turkey’s purchase of Russian arms?

The decision by Turkey to buy a Russian missile defense system, has caused concern in NATO. Is Turkey drifting away from the West with the help of Moscow or is it just a bargaining trick to get a better seat at the NATO-table? The move fits in the aim of president Erdogan to show to the rest of the world how strong his New Turkey has become. Turkey-analyst Joost Lagendijk  considers the options.

door Joost Lagendijk

For some time now, Turkey has been looking to buy a missile defense system. After years of negotiations with several suppliers, it seems as if Ankara has decided upon the Russian S-400 medium and long-range surface-to-air missile system, designed to destroy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles. Turkey wants to have such a system to protect the country against possible attacks from neighbors Iran and Syria.

vladimir putin met with recep tayyip erdogan 2016 10 10 02Is Turkey drifting away from the West with the help of Moscow? Photo free from copyright

That choice has created a lot of questions among other NATO members: Is Turkey drifting away from the West with the help of Moscow and is this the beginning of the end of Turkey’s NATO membership? Is it a last warning to the US and Europe that Turkey wants its security concerns to be taken more seriously? Or is it just the latest example of a classic bargaining trick to eventually get a better missile deal elsewhere?

Chinese missiles

In 2013, to the surprise of many, Turkey took the initial decision to favor a Chinese missile system to defend itself against attacks from neighboring countries. Despite offers from American and European companies, the Turkish government turned a deaf ear to repeated Western warnings and opted for a system that would be incompatible with the rest of its national, NATO linked defense architecture.

The choice led to a long discussion among international observers on how to interpret this move. Some warned that it was a clear signal of Turkish unease with Western reluctance to support Ankara’s policy on Syria (aiding mainstream Syrian rebels to remove Syrian president Assad from power) and Western support in its fight with ISIS for the Syrian Kurds that Turkey considers to be directly linked to the Turkish Kurdish terrorist PKK. Other analysts underlined that the Chinese deal was only in its first phase and that Turkey could still pull out if it had good reasons to shop somewhere else.

Erdogan’s New Turkey

In fact, that is exactly what happened in November 2015 when the Turkish government announced the cancellation of the $3.4 billion tender that was provisionally awarded to a Chinese company. The main reason cited was the the apparent unwillingness of the Chinese to transfer technology to Turkey and to jointly build the missile system in Turkey. The objection fits into a bigger picture: Turkey’s stated aim to build up its own defense industry to reduce reliance on foreign suppliers in 2023, the centennial of the Turkish Republic and the year in which Turkish current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to show to the rest of the world how strong his New Turkey has become.

After the end of the Chinese game, many in Turkey and abroad thought Washington and Brussels got the message and expected Ankara to fall in line with NATO requests to concentrate on acquiring American or European missiles. However, contrary to expectations, the next preferred Turkish option turned out to be the Russian S-400 missile system. This time the Turkish government quickly and clearly went beyond the first stage. At the beginning of last September, Erdogan announced that Turkey had made the first advance payments and on September 25, 2017 Turkish Defense Industry Undersecretary Ismail Demir proudly declared that delivery of the S-400s would begin within two years. How to assess this shift from Beijing to Moscow?

Mistrust of Western allies is nothing new in Turkey

Turkish military experts tend to downplay the significance of the S-400 acquisition. Already in February 2016, shortly after the end of the Chinese deal, two Turkish military experts explained on the Defense One website how to interpret the Turkish moves. According to them, Turkey does not want to leave the NATO table but wants to get a better seat. Turkey’s leadership has the feeling that its security interests (mainly related to the Kurds: Turkey’s fight with the PKK inside Turkey and the fear that Western support for the Syrian Kurds could lead to an autonomous Kurdish region along the Turkish-Syrian border) are not recognized.

In their view, Turkey needed a dignified exit from its commitment to the Chinese offer and the assurance that its Western allies are not oblivious to its legitimate concerns. That moment arrived after NATO decided to rethink its posture in the Middle East and strengthen its intra-alliance solidarity. This shift also increased the premium placed on Turkey’s continued support. This reasoning explains why the Chinese deal was terminated at the end of 2015 but it does not throw light on the decision to turn to Moscow next.

Purges in the airforce

That decision was clarified by defense analyst Can Kasapoglu in a July 2017 paper titled ‘Turkey’s S-400 Dilemma’ and published by EDAM (Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies), a renowned think tank in Istanbul. Kasapoglu explains the rush by claiming that the S-400s will mainly be used to fix a crucial problem faced by the Turkish Air Force. As a result of the purges in the airforce after the failed coup of July 2016, there are simply too few pilots left to keep up Turkey’s air defense system. In his words: ‘Turkey will first and foremost operate the S-400s as a stopgap measure to augment its air superiority.’

turkish coup istanbulTurkish citizens stop tank during military coup attempt. Photo free from copyright

According to Kasapoglu, because of the absense of a robust network of satellites, radars and early-warning aircraft, the Russian missiles will only play a very limited role in Turkey’s future ballistic missiles defense system. He expects the Turkish government to pursue opportunities for the co-production of a NATO-friendly system - probably the one produced by the Franco-Italian group Eurosam - in order to gain a layered balastic missile defense capacity supported by the NATO architecture. His worry is that the Russians will not be able to deliver the S-400s quick enough, that is before 2020.
American defense and Turkey expert Aaron Stein basically supported this view when he tweeted one month ago that the S-400 js meant to be a stand-alone system. He agrees that the S-400 is a political challenge and does not undermine NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense system.

These qualifications are shared by some of the experts who reacted to the question posed by the Carnegie Europe website at the end of September: ‘Is Turkey weakening NATO?’  Kristian Brakel, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Istanbul, a think tank linked to the German Greens, put Turkey’s choice for the S-400s in perspective by underlining that mistrust of Western allies is nothing new in Turkey. What has recently changed though, is the fact that Erdogan has turned to an old nationalist, anti-imperialist narrative to mobilize broad parts of Turkish society to secure victories at the ballot box. On top of that, with the US and Europe being largely out of the picture when it comes to shaping Syria’s future, Turkey needs to deal with Russia.

s 400 systemTransportation of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile  system. Photo free from copyright

But Brakel sees no reason to worry too much about Turkey’s commitment to NATO: ‘All this does not mean that Turkey wants to leave NATO. Staying a member of the alliance remains a priority, especially as Russia does not offer a viable alternative. Turkey’s relation with Russia is a transactional one, born out of necessity to have a seat at the negotiating table over Syria. The Turkish leadership has the wish to diversify the range of its allies and the possible suppliers of military hardware, just in case. But other than in the NATO Council, Turkey remains just a junior partner for Russia.’

Eurasianism on the rise

There is, however, also a different school of thought that is much more worried about the current Turkish-Russian rapprochement. Other experts on the Carnegie website stress that this goes well beyond a simple arms transfer. Stationing S-400s in Turkey would inevitably bring about further military cooperation, training of Turkey’s military personnel by Russian experts and would trigger more defense cooperation between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey tries to get even with the West, but might make a big tactical mistake

Paul Levin, director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, is afraid the arms deal is part of a bigger Turkish move to the East. Many of the post-coup expulsions have targetted ‘Atlanticists’, that is Westleaning and often secular army officers many of whom have sought asylum in NATO countries. Levin: ‘The purges appear to have given the so-called “Eurasianists” - who prefer an eastward turn in Turkish foreign and security policy - the upper hand. The possible purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system suggests a broader Eurasianist reorientation.’

Still others position themselves somewhere in the middle of this debate. They question the military value of the S-400s that have not even been properly tested yet. Or feel that Turkey is making a big tactical mistake. As experienced Turkish columnist Semih Idiz put it: ‘The S-400 affair sounds more like an ill-considired way of trying to get even with the West, which could result in Ankara painting itself into yet another corner.’

New doubts about the deal

To make things even more complicated and obscure, recent statements by Turkish and Russian officials seem to cast doubts on the future of the S-400 deal. At the end of September, Vladimir Kozkin, Russian presidential aide for military-technical cooperation, confirmed Turkey’s advance payment but underlined that the issue of transferring technology for S-400 production to Ankara had not been discussed yet. One week later, on October 9, Reuters reported Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu as saying that ‘Turkey could seek a deal to acquire a missile defense system with another country if Russia does not agree to joint production of a defense shield.’ That same day, Tass quoted Cavusoglu on the same subject as well: ‘We have heard no official refusal on that score. Putin told us we may take steps for joint production. Know-how will be crucial.’ The Russian news agency also quoted Kozkin who said that ‘the handover of S-400 production know-how to Turkey is not on the agenda.’

One day before, on October 8, the Turkish pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reported about a visit to Washington of CHP (the biggest oppostion party) Deputy Chairman Öztürk Yilmaz. He stated that Turkey had contacted the Americans at the end of September about a possible sale of Patriot missiles. According to Yilmaz, the S-400 is only for urgent needs and Turkey is still looking for another system for longer-term use. According to the newspaper, his words were confirmed by Turkish officials.

That leaves all the questions open again. Is the S-400 indeed an urgent military matter for Turkey to reinforce its air defense that has the additional value of provoking its NATO allies to be more forthcoming without putting Turkish membership on the line? Or does the Turkish-Russian deal signal a deliberate Turkish move away from NATO and are the current Turkish complaints over technological know-how just a tric to get a better deal with Russia? Or should we not make too much of the S-400 deal because the missiles can and will be used next to other systems that are NATO-proof and is Turkey just being clever by keeping all its options open?


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