Turkey says immediate national-security needs are behind its decision to buy Russia’s S-400 long-range air and missile defense system. The question is why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should push for the acquisition of the S-400, and risk enraging its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, when his country’s territory is already protected by allied air and missile defenses.
Ankara announced last Friday that it had finalized a deal to acquire the advanced defense platform from Russia. Turkey will be the first NATO member state to purchase the S-400 system. As its deployment poses problems of interoperability for the Atlantic bloc, it will not be integrated into NATO’s defense shield.
Ankara’s acquisition of S-400 batteries comes as its relations with NATO allies have dipped to an all-time low. Erdogan has repeatedly lambasted the United States for its support for the Syrian Kurds, who are linked to the rebel PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) movement in Turkey.
The Turkish president is also at loggerheads with Washington for its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric he believes is behind the botched coup attempt against him in July 2016. Further, his repression of coup plotters has strained ties with the European Union, drastically reducing Turkish chances to join the EU in the future.
When contacted by Asia Times, Ahmet Berat Conkar, a member of the Turkish parliament for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who also heads the country’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, emphasized the growing disconnection between Ankara and NATO allies, and the effect it has on Turkey’s arms-acquisition policy.
He said Turkey was concluding the purchase of the S-400 because it needs national capacity for air defense systems, particularly after the unexpected withdrawal of Patriot interceptors from Turkish territory by NATO allies at a time when his country needed them most, during the peak of the Syrian conflict.
In his view, “Turkey has striven to acquire air and missile defense systems from its allies for a long time, but they have not been helpful in their approach and conditions.” He added that Ankara had experienced “a strategic arms embargo from its allies from time to time.” According to him, “it is a meaningful decision for Turkey to diversify its arms procurement, as allies may not act on the terms of the alliance in some cases.” Notably, his reference is to US ties with PKK-backed Syrian Kurds.
NATO’s interceptors still deployed in Turkey
In reality, only the United States, Germany and the Netherlands removed their Patriot batteries from southern Turkey in 2015. There are currently Patriot and Aster SAMP/T interceptors stationed on Turkish soil by Spain and Italy as part of NATO’s air defense framework.
As well, it is certainly true that Turkish attempts to purchase a modern missile defense system from NATO allies have often been prevented by differences on aspects such as price, co-production and technology transfer. But despite the fact that the S-400 agreement is said to include clauses on technological cooperation, Russia will likely impose limitations on the transfer to Turkey of related know-how.
This means Ankara will have to keep other options on the table if it wants to develop an indigenous air and missile defense platform. It is indeed working with France and Italy for joint production of an Aster 30–based surface-to-air missile system, which has the advantage of being compatible with NATO’s defense architecture. Cooperation with the Franco-Italian Eurosam consortium is especially attractive for the Turkish defense industry because it involves an exchange of technology and expertise.
Autonomy and balance of power
Ankara says the NATO secretary general himself, Jens Stoltenberg, has recognized that the procurement of S-400 units is a sovereign national decision that does not affect the Atlantic alliance’s security needs and priorities.
NATO is actually more articulate on the issue. “It is up to allies to decide what military equipment they buy,” a NATO official told Asia Times. However, he pointed out that “what matters for NATO is that the equipment allies acquire is able to operate together,” adding that “interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions.”
Erdogan is trying to distance Turkey from NATO, but he does not want to abandon the alliance. The Turkish president aims to use political, military and economic connections to the West’s competitors and rivals (Russia, Iran, but also China) to underpin his country’s position within NATO and turn it into an autonomous player.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition force in Turkey, is concerned that the purchase of S-400 batteries – the last fruit of current Russo-Turkish rapprochement – could further damage ties between Ankara and its NATO allies. As Ozgur Ozel, a CHP parliament whip, put it to this writer: “The S-400 deal shows us that the Turkish foreign policy is losing one of its pillars, which is the balance of power between great powers.”