The controversy over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system is emblematic of a long history of tenuous relationships on all sides. Officially, Turkey is an American ally and NATO member. Yet recent events reveal the fragility of Turkey’s Western alliances, and the nation’s turn towards Russia is ominous.
The First Defense Systems Drama
The Gulf War marks the beginning of heightened military cooperation between the West and Turkey. During the war, the American and coalition aircraft used Turkish air bases. Postwar, they were granted access to Turkish airspace in order to monitor regional security. In return, the U.S., the Netherlands, and Germany deployed Patriot missiles to Turkey, first to provide protection during the 1991 Gulf War, and then again during the 2003 Iraq War. The early 1991 deployment set a precedent for what would become decades of Turkish reliance on NATO defense systems whenever regional tensions grew. Yet the Patriot systems were withdrawn in 2015, leaving holes in Turkey’s defense net.
Responding to Turkey’s goal of acquiring its own permanent missile defense system, the Department of Defense has made various offers. However, over the years the negotiations have become caught up in geopolitics. As violence increased in Syria, Turkey’s strategic importance also rose in the eyes of NATO, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then Prime Minister, now President of Turkey) saw opportunities to capitalize on his country’s enhanced bargaining power.
In 2013, Erdogan raised the stakes when he announced intentions to eschew U.S. offers and opt instead for China’s FD-2000 system. Turkey’s hard bargaining techniques and the NATO response—point-blank unwillingness to incorporate Chinese technology into the alliance’s defense network—revealed how ostensible allegiance to NATO does not always line up with Turkey’s strategic goals.
Turning to Russia
Suggestions about a new period of “Turkey-Russia détente” have been accumulating recently. This warming of relations has occurred despite a tense history between the countries.
Four years ago, Turkish-Russian relations were at a low after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that had violated the Turkish-Syrian border. This moment of escalation underscored an entrenched pattern of adversarial dynamics, stretching back to the Russo-Turkish war and Turkey’s role as a buffer between Europe and the East during the Cold War.
Despite this difficult past, Turkey appears to be aligning with Putin’s Russia. Signs of this shift are most clearly seen in the personal relationship that has formed between the two presidents. Since June 2016, the two men have apparently met 23 times and spoken by phone 52 times. They share a common vision of authoritarianism’s promise, and Erdogan seems to be leading Turkey in ways that are straight out of Putin’s playbook.
After a failed coup in 2016, Erdogan instituted a strict state of emergency that limited citizens’ freedoms and dragged on for two years. He has also been quick to imprison critics of his regime, and his crack-down on journalists, filmmakers, and academics is a sobering mirror of Putin’s domestic repression. For years, Erdogan has expressed deep-set mistrust of the West. All these characteristics make Turkey appear less like a NATO member and more like a firm pal of Putin.
Deteriorating U.S. Relations
Turkey’s growing closeness with Russia and its retreat from the West is partly a move of necessity. As relations with the United States have soured, Erdogan was forced to look elsewhere for allies.
American action in Syria further sparked Turkish suspicion. The U.S. supported and armed Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State, but the U.S.-backed militias are seen by Turkey as a threat to its national security. Russia, on the other hand, backed Turkey’s operations against the Kurds.
Defense Systems Drama 2.0
The combined effects of Turkey’s waning trust of the West, deteriorating relations with the U.S., and growing affinity with Russia are on full display in the current defense systems sales. Erdogan’s recent purchase of the Russian S-400 system has been decried by Washington officials as “wrong” and “disappointing.” The U.S. response of removing Turkey from the F-35 program prompted Russia to offer a sale of its own Su-35 instead. Most recently, threats of sanctions exploded on both sides.
If Turkey completes its eastward pivot, there will be clear winners (autocratic Russia and China) and losers (the U.S. and Europe) and it’s uncertain if the West can afford such a development. Turkey’s geographic centrality, its role in strategic areas such as managing Syrian refugee flows, and its value as a European trade partner all suggest that losing the country completely would spell trouble. NATO’s questionable willingness and ability to hold onto Turkey may be vital for the alliance’s future survival, and a test for the soft power of the alliance.