Most analysts nevertheless believe the move will not lead to a complete rupture in Washington-Ankara ties
Turkey has received the first shipment of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, according to the Turkish Defense Ministry, a move that could trigger US sanctions and may mark a significant geopolitical shift towards the East for the NATO member.
The military shipment arrived at an air base near the Turkish capital Ankara and additional components will be forthcoming in the coming days, the defense ministry’s statement read in part.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that he would be speaking with his Turkish counterpart.
“There will be more to follow after that conversation,” Esper added.
In response, the U.S. has already suspended a program to deliver to Turkey, and train its pilots to fly, fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets, which many analysts argue could have been compromised by Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400.
Muzaffer Senel, assistant professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Şehir University, does not believe that Turkey’s actions make strategic sense.
“Russia and Turkey have conflicting interests almost in all areas,” Senel told The Media Line. “[The] Russians will not be able to be trusted and it will be a big problem for Turkey.”
Although Turkey and Russia currently support opposing sides in the Syrian war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been forced to cooperate with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to avoid an offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib Province, which would have caused hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee and seek refuge in Turkey.
Senel posited that Ankara was also motivated by its ambition to develop its own defense industry.
In this respect, the Turkish government previously expressed anger that Washington was unwilling to share technology related to the American-made Patriot anti-missile defense system when the nations were negotiating a possible deal. Otherwise, this would have potentially allowed Turkey to manufacture similar arms in the future.
Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously dealt with Turkish affairs at the US State Department, was skeptical that Moscow would be willing to provide Ankara with such a benefit, which could open the door to accessing sensitive Russian technology.
“I think it’s a disastrous decision for Turkey,” Makovsky said, adding that the country would “take a heavy hit militarily, but they are also going to take a hit economically.”
Indeed, the White House is expected to direct the Treasury Department to impose economic sanctions on Turkey. This is in addition to those implemented last year, when Washington backlisted two Turkish officials and increased tariffs on Turkish metal imports following a diplomatic row over a detained American pastor. Thereafter, the Turkish Lira went into free fall, leading to inflation and, in turn, rising food prices and unemployment.
These economic manifestations largely contributed to Erdogan’s party losing June’s mayoral race in Istanbul, which was deemed the president’s greatest political defeat since he assumed power in 2009.
Nevertheless, Makovsy suspects that while Turkey’s status within NATO will be hurt, the U.S. will try to limit the fall-out.
“I think there’s going to be a desire to hold the line,” he said. “I think people are not going to want to see things totally unravel.”
Makovsky qualified, however, that the US views Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system as a betrayal.
He noted that ultimately Erdogan could choose to shut down US military bases on Turkish soil and that US President Donald Trump could move to decrease intelligence sharing.
That Turkey borders both Syria and Iraq, and has historically acted as a bridge between the East and West, makes it an important US strategic ally.
“I think there’s going to be a sense on both sides that the other is untrustworthy and that’s [liable to] create a spiral [effect]…and potentially end Turkey’s relationship with the West,” Makovsky said.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor believes that the purchase by a NATO member of Russian arms could set a precedent, and that Erdogan’s decision was made in order to reduce Ankara’s dependence on the US.
On the flip side, Bohl concluded, US military support and NATO membership remain vital interests for Turkey.
“[Accordingly], this will be a significant rupture in the [bilateral] relationship but it won’t be a complete break.”