S-400 arrives in Ankara: Crunch time for Turkish foreign policy


File: A new S-400 ‘Triumph’ surface-to-air missile system seen near Kaliningrad, Russia PHOTO/Reuters

The arrival of the Russian missile defence system in Ankara could mark a major rupture between Turkey and the US.

The date July 12, 2019, is likely to stay in the annals of Turkish diplomatic history. In the morning hours, two Russian transport planes delivered the first batch of components for the S-400 air-defence missile system to the Murted airfield on the outskirts of Ankara.

Procured from Russia, against vehement objections by the United States, the delivery seals security and defence ties between Moscow and Ankara. It also raises the risk of sanctions against Turkey, a key ally within NATO and long-standing US partner in the Middle East, the Black Sea area and in Southeast Europe. Ankara is facing a real threat of being ejected from the international consortium behind F-35, an advanced fighter jet which is set to provide the bulk of US airpower in the decades to come.

Turkish defence sector companies are also in danger of punishment under the Countering America’s Adversary through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Passed by Congress two years ago with overwhelming bipartisan support, the legislation provides for penalties for countries engaging in defence deals with Russia, Iran and North Korea. At their harshest, sanctions could take a toll on the growingly fragile Turkish financial system, shutting it from US and international money markets. In addition, they would symbolically relegate Turkey from an ally to an associate of states US views as rogue.

Fears in Washington of Turkey changing sides are not altogether misplaced. The deployment of S-400s, Moscow’s most advanced anti-aircraft system designed to keep the US and its allies in check, would facilitate the gathering and transfer of sensitive data to the Russians. A breach of F-35s stealth technology would deny America and its closest partners, such as Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, the UK and others, the strategic edge they have over their adversaries. Turkey’s repeated assurances that it would operate the missile system alone, relying on its own software and military and technical personnel, have thus far failed to convince many people on the banks of the Potomac.

The assessment that Turkey is now effectively wedded to Russia in strategic terms is not justified, however. Ankara’s geopolitical vision remains unaltered. The Turkish leadership, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his entourage first and foremost, believe in their country as an autonomous player using links to both the West and Russia to its own advantage.

Turkey embraced Russia largely as a result of its intervention in Syria. The US support for the Kurdish militias in the northeast compelled Erdogan to pursue rapprochement with both Russian President Putin and the Iranians. Suspicions over the US stance in the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, have fed into the burgeoning ties with Russia, too. Commentators link Erdogan’s steadfast resolve to see the S-400 deal as an attempt to guarantee the government’s safety in the event of another coup. As it happens, the Murted (Akinci) base served as a launching pad for attacks against the Grand National Assembly and the National Intelligence Service (MIT) by rogue pilots three years ago.

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