Turkey: S-400 Over the F-35?
In early June, Washington issued an ultimatum to Turkey urging the country to reconsider its decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system. The Turkish Ministry of Defense acknowledged the ultimatum on June 8, two days after it was reported in the media (Kurt 2019). At that time, Turkey was informed that if the deal to purchase the S-400 from Russia continued, all Turkish personnel training with the American F-35 fighter planes would be required to cease training and leave American soil by July 31 (Marcus 2019). By June 6, Washington had already announced that it would stop accepting new Turkish pilots into the program for training on the F-35 (Stewart 2019).
Turkey has been struggling with its position in NATO for years (Pierini 2019). At this point, Turkey’s internal politics indicate a turn away from the westernizing Turkey that NATO could rely on when the organization began. Making deals with Russia in any regard is only set to further upset Turkey’s western allies, especially when it is subject to international scrutiny over domestic politics.
American interests lie in keeping the S-400 as far away from the F-35. Close proximity between the F-35 and the S-400 would give Russian officials running the air-defense system in Turkey a good shot at understanding the American aircraft. Russia’s understanding of the specific profile features of the F-35 could be detrimental to US national security (Marcus 2019), as it would make it possible for Russia to create an air defense system that can specifically target the F-35.
Israeli usage of the F-35 has already been closely monitored by the Russian forces in Syria, making the US wary of moving forward with a deal with Turkey unless they agree to halt a deal with Russia (Marcus 2019).
The US has urged Turkey to purchase the Patriot air defense system instead of the S-400, but talks on a deal have come to no avail. Turkish news sources claim that prior “protracted” efforts were made to purchase the Patriot before they ever turned to Moscow (“Turkey’s S-400 Purchase” 2019).Supposedly, the Turkish government requested to purchase Patriot missiles in 2012 (“Why Doesn’t Turkey” 2012).Turkey may have considered the Patriot to be a definite alternative to purchasing arms from Russia (Kasapoglu 2019). By 2015, Turkey was rapidly moving towards a deal with Moscow to buy the S-400.
It is difficult to understand exactly why Turkey would prefer the S-400 as strongly as it does now. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and its declining relationship with NATO only give some possibilities.
Turkey may just prefer the S-400 to the Patriot air defense system. Open information on the different systems suggests that the S-400 may have some selling points over the Patriot (“Battle of the Air Defense” 2018).Also, there were likely other pressures that soured the original talks between the US and Turkey over the Patriot. Pricing for the Patriot system is kept classified by Raytheon (the defense firm that manufactures the Patriot), but considering the political implications of Turkey purchasing air defense from anyone but the US, American defense companies could have overestimated their ability to set the price. Economic incentives could have played a bigger role in Turkey’s decision than the US assumed it would. Moreover, Turkey’s deal with Moscow over the Turkstream pipeline means that Turkey relies on Russia for energy. Turning back on a deal with them now could be dangerous for the energy future of Turkey (Stewart 2019). Because a deal with Turkey for the Patriot was never accepted in 2012, it is impossible to substantiate pricing offers made at that time. However, shortly after Turkey requested air-defense to guard against Syrian missiles, something made them consider other bids from China, Russia, and some firms in Europe (Toksabay 2013).
Based on this kind of information, it seems that some aspects of the American-Turkish deal left the door open for Russia to undercut the prices that the United States offered. At that point, Turkey likely attempted to use the Russia deal as leverage for negotiating with America. Now, Turkey can’t turn back on such a deal without damaging their agreements over Turkstream and Russian energy usage. Personal and reported discussions with Turks themselves prove that this part of international policy has become full of Turkish pride. They do not want to turn their back on Russia when they have come this far with a deal, especially when they feel the United States was unwilling to negotiate reasonable alternatives. Comments made by Turkish media show this kind of pride, especially after Trump commented on the Obama administration’s error at the G20 summit in Japan (“Trump: S-400 Tension” 2019). Turkish media also insists that this is a problem between the US and Turkey, not with NATO (“S-400 is Bilateral Problem” 2019).
The steps Trump has taken to soften the conflict are only the beginning of what would be a long process to heal relations with Turkey. As it stands, Turkey will go through with the S-400 deal. On June 25, Erdoğan announced that Turkey will receive the delivery from Russia, and it will take more than political sway to convince them to change their mind (“Erdogan is Clear Cut” 2019).
Turkey is moving quickly towards a deal with Russia. Time to change tracks is running out, and the decision the country makes will undoubtedly become a turning point for its position in NATO. At the end of the civil war in Syria, the Turkish cry against the US’s support for Kurdish terrorists has left Turkish-American relations with something to be desired. Additionally, the way that Turkey’s efforts to join the EU have been received has left Turkey’s relationship with all of its NATO allies in a fragile position. As Turkey faces this new chapter, the geopolitics of the Middle East is surely going to shift amongst some of the US’s most relied upon allies. The way that the region is viewed by the US and its NATO allies will have to change as Russia takes hold on what was once the greatest force for the West in the Middle East.
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