There remains a bitter aftertaste in Washington over Ankara’s acquisition of Russian weapons
Turkey’s pursuit of US funding to limit an economic crisis faces a major roadblock after Ankara said it would eventually go ahead and activate a key Russian weapon system.
The country averted a crisis with Washington in April when it pulled back from a plan to operationally deploy its Russia-made S-400 air-defense missiles. But Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has now said that the system will indeed be activated.
“There has been a delay because of the coronavirus, but [the deployment] will move forward as planned,” he said on Thursday.
Ankara’s purchase of the anti-aircraft system frustrated Washington, which kicked Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet program and threatened sanctions. The deal still remains a bone of contention, though, as Turkey seeks financial support to stave off further economic turmoil that has seen the lira drop to new lows against the dollar.
The US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, says Ankara has been in contact with the Federal Reserve. The Reuters news agency, citing Turkish sources last month, reported that the country was seeking a lira-dollar swap.
Muzaffer Senel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University, says the situation is dire.
“There’s no real prescription that we have for the recovery of the economy,” he told The Media Line. “We need money.”
Senel estimates that nearly half of the Turkish population could find itself unemployed if companies continue to stop operating amid the pandemic.
Erdogan has resisted a full lockdown, instead ordering those above age 65 to stay indoors and applying lockdowns only on weekends, meaning people can still go to work.
Unpacking the S-400s could lead to sanctions from the US Congress, worsening the situation.
“Turkey doesn’t want to harm its good relationship with [US President Donald] Trump,” Senel said. “Ankara needs Trump as a counterbalance to Congress.”
Turkish leaders saw the damage that sanctions could do after a 2018 diplomatic crisis with the US over their detention of an American pastor. Following the sanctions, the country’s currency went into freefall, leading to rising inflation and unemployment, and eventually to a recession.
Senel says Erdogan’s popularity has already taken a hit over his Syria policy. Opinion polls suggest that many in the country are unhappy with the deaths of Turkish soldiers in Idlib Province, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians have moved closer to the border with Turkey amid increased attacks by the Moscow-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s a challenging time for Ankara to create a balance between those groups, the Americans [and] the Russians,” he noted.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has drifted farther away from the US and NATO, especially after a failed 2016 coup attempt that, according to Ankara, showed the military alliance’s unwillingness to defend its member-state. At the same time, Turkey has moved closer to the East, especially Russia, which is a major supplier of energy.
But it was last year’s deal for the S-400s that made the shift take center-stage. The US is concerned that Moscow could uncover secret stealth technology if Turkey were to deploy F-35s alongside the Russian air-defense missiles.
Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow focusing on Turkey at the German Marshall Fund, is pessimistic that Ankara will succeed in gaining US financial support while remaining committed to activating the S-400s.
“It’s going to make a deal very difficult,” he told The Media Line.
“Turkey keeps saying the United States needs to support [it] during this [economic] crisis, that the two countries have to work together…,” he said. “But then at the same time, [Turkish leaders are] implying that as soon as the crisis is over, they’re going to go right back to the policies that initially antagonized Washington.”
Kerim Has, a Moscow-based political analyst focusing on Russia and Turkey, said the pandemic gave Erdogan an excuse to delay the activation of the weapons, with Moscow unlikely to pressure Turkey to activate them at the moment.
“It’s not an urgent need right now,” he told The Media Line. “The Kremlin is probably going to keep its wait-and-see position.”
Has warned, though, that Russia would at some point lean on Turkey to activate the system, believing that Moscow could block arms being sent to Libya’s Government of National Accord, which Ankara supports, or increase attacks on areas in Syria where Turkey has a military presence.
Additional attacks in Idlib Province would push Syrians fleeing the fighting even closer to the border with Turkey, leading to fears in Ankara of another refugee crisis.
“For [Erdogan’s] political survival, he can’t risk relations with Russia,” Has said.