There is already huge interest in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Moscow on March 9-10, but news that he is to discuss a possible purchase of Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system (the “SA-21 Growler”) has added another layer of intrigue.
Relations between Turkey, a Nato member since 1952, and Russia seemed set for the deep freeze back in November 2015, with Russian President Vladimir Putin even blanking Erdogan’s calls after a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter-bomber said to have strayed into Turkish airspace from operations in Syria. But 16 months later it is Erdogan’s relations with Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance that have grown worryingly chilly, while the reset of the relationship with Moscow is gathering pace.
The prospect of an S-400 SAM acquisition by Ankara has disorientated top military and geopolitical analysts, although several feel the mooted buy is just a piece of Erdogan mischief that will not go anywhere.
Starting with the military side, the experts are unsure whether Nato would even accept a member country running such a major-league Russian air defence system alongside its own technologies. Approached on the matter by bne IntelliNews, a Nato official gave a guarded response. After stating that it is “up to Allies to decide what military equipment they buy”, they pointed out that “in general terms, connecting to military equipment from countries outside the alliance can raise serious security implications”.
Some analysts, of course, believe Moscow will eventually baulk at completing the negotiations for the S-400 mobile missile system. After all, should the Russians’ traditionally unreliable relationship with the Turks once more take a turn for the worse, they could one day find themselves up against their own anti-aircraft hardware. They would be giving Turkey an even better capability to shoot down their own jets in the future.
Both sides, however, insist the bargaining is dead serious. The matter has been placed on the agenda of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council, which will meet during the Erdogan visit.
But the idea of a sale has, for instance, been described as implausible by Mike Kofman, a fellow specialising in Russian military affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center. “This is all a political leverage game. Turkey is up to the same game as they were with China,” The National Interest on February 22 quoted Wilson as saying. Many analysts believe Turkey’s eventually abandoned 2013 push to acquire the Chinese-built HQ-9 air defense system was also simply an effort to trigger Western technology transfers.
“As though Russia would transfer technology to them, helping to make the Turkish defence industry a stronger competitor - or as a secondary issue - sell its best air defence to a Nato country. Turkey is again using these talks to try and blackmail Nato countries into air defence sales,” argued Kofman.
The fact that in 2013 Turkish anti-aircraft hardware procurement officials assessed what the Russians had on offer as “exorbitantly expensive”, before turning to the Chinese, is also conveniently forgotten.
The same article, however, quotes Sam Bendett, a researcher specialising in Russian military affairs at the Arlington, Virginia-based CNA Corp research and analysis organisation, as saying: “I think this could be a genuine effort.”
Noting Turkey’s push to boost its military technological independence from the West, he added: “This purchase is in line with Turkey's continued drive for military modernisation that will have them designing, building and fielding a wide range of state-of-the-art land, air and sea-based weapons. This drive for military-technological independence is not complete without the sophisticated long-range air missile defence system that the S-400 represents.”
The Turkish armed forces rank as the second largest standing military force in Nato after the US Armed Forces, with an estimated strength of more than 625,000 military, civilian and paramilitary personnel. What’s more, Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base hosts around three dozen B61 nuclear bombs under the Nato nuclear sharing programme that also includes Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The use of the weapons by the Turkish Air Force requires a Nato go-ahead.
According to research conducted by Turkish Professor Dr Nurhan Yentürk, published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Turkey’s military expenditure more or less doubled in the decade up to 2015, during which it consistently fulfilled Nato’s stipulation that the annual sum should amount to at least 2% of GDP. However, glaring gaps remain in its defences, such as the lack of an advanced anti-aircraft system.
On the battlefield, meanwhile, observers often describe Turkish soldiers’ efforts as underwhelming. In Syria, Isis has reportedly exposed shortcomings by taking out many Turkish tanks with anti-tank guided missiles, while there have been reports of the Turkish military, nervous of ground-based weaponry, being too afraid to fly helicopters, even to evacuate the wounded.
Morale among the ranks is said to be very low and perhaps that is not surprising when your president has responded to an attempted military coup by purging half the generals and admirals and around 10% of commissioned officers.
Erdogan, always keen to trample on what’s left under his regime of the army’s traditional role as the bastion of secular Turkey, is much closer to the police than the military. Moreover, since his government’s mending of ties with Moscow got underway he has not been averse to allowing Putin to chip away at Nato unity. But how far might Erdogan let these fresh inquiries go? Is even a Turkish departure from the North Atlantic Alliance a realistic prospect in the foreseeable future?
In a February 21 piece, “Will Russia flip Turkey?”, Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and an analyst for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote that in his open pursuit of “dictatorial power” Erdogan has “targeted Turkish officers serving in Nato capacities or deemed to have had too much previous Nato experience”, while media outlets close to the president openly accuse Nato of promoting terrorism.
Erdogan, added Rubin, was attempting “with full Russian support, to delegitimise Nato in the eyes of his public”. Both the Turkish and Russian dictators, he concluded, “hate the West and are unabashedly anti-American. Erdogan may pretend to straddle East and West, but that’s increasingly an illusion he maintains only for tactical reasons. The question is whether the Trump administration will let Turkey get away with it”.
Independent analyst Gareth Jenkins, who has resided in Turkey since 1989, argues that the rapprochement with Russia can be overstated. He told London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in February that Russians were yet to remove most of the economic sanctions they imposed against Turkey after the shooting down of the SU-24. There were also still differences between the Russians and the Turks over issues including the future government of Syria and the status of the Kurds, he said.
Russia and Turkey, pointed out Jenkins, had always had a “highly compartmentalised relationship, with flourishing economic ties, agreeing to disagree on some issues and quite hostile on some others, particularly, of course, Syria”. The détente, he said, might see the two nations “go back to this kind of compartmentalised relationship rather than it being [a case of] friends in all areas and enemies in all areas”.
In a January 22 piece for The Turkey Analyst - “Turkey is expecting a restart with the US” - Halil Karaveli, a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Centre, where he heads the Turkey Initiative, noted that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had “dismissed all talk of Turkey ‘tilting’ away from Nato and towards Russia”.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded by Islamists who realised that good relations with the US were a prerequisite of political and economic success, wrote Karaveli, observing: “When Turkey shot down the Russian warplane in November 2015, [then] Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogu boasted that he had personally given the order to shoot down the Russian plane.”
Karaveli concluded: “The Kurdish question has once again complicated Turkish-American relations. Anti-Americanism is useful to whip up and mobilise nationalist opinion. Yet, Erdogan’s Islamists are nonetheless not any aspiring anti-imperialists. What they want – and what they expect that Turkey is going to get – is simply a better ‘business deal’ with the United States under Donald Trump.”