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Turkey: the Game Changer

The deal between Ankara and Moscow has been signed and sealed and the first shipments of the S-400 air defence system have just landed on Turkish soil, at a military airbase located at the vicinity of the country’s capital. The second-largest NATO army is acquiring weapons and materiel from a state that by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is viewed as inimical.

Turkey occupies an area which is bridging Europe with Asia and neighbouring some of the war-ridden countries like Iraq and Syria in the volatile region known as the Middle East. It is also strategically important for NATO because it controls the Straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and because it outflanks Russia from the south. A NATO member since 1952 Turkey – although a Third World country – wanted to remain a loyal member of the Alliance with ever closer ties to the Western world. Not only did Ankara join its troops to the NATO but also lent its territory to the pact. The reader will have remembered that it was the American missiles deployed to Turkish territory which caused anxiety at the Kremlin and induced Nikita Khrushchev to retaliate by deploying Soviet missiles to Cuba, which led to the international conflict threatening to culminate in a third world war. The strained relations between the two superpowers were only eased when both the Soviets withdrew their missiles from the largest island in the Caribic and the Americans removed theirs from Turkey.

Turkey’s membership in the Alliance has never meant that Ankara was a patsy in Washington’s hands. It skilfully guarded its sovereignty and pursued its own interests. Thus in 1974 Turkish armed forces landed in Northern Cyprus, establishing there of a separate Turkish state and a permanent – as yet – division of the island predominantly inhabited by Greeks. Thus Ankara dared to thwart the interest of another NATO member – Greece – and Athens could do nothing about it. Turkey was strategically too important and that is why it could afford to act independently of NATO’s most important allies.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the country’s strategic position diminished, especially in the nineties, in the Yeltsin Era. Post-Soviet republics were in trouble, political or economic, or both, and Russia seemed to be further disintegrating, leaving the United States as the only global superpower, so much so that China was not yet that strong at that time. It all gradually changed in the 2000s with Vladimir Putin taking the reigns of power and reversing the downward spiral that Russia was following. Turkey’s strategic importance again gained in value, not to mention the country’s cooperation needed by Washington during the time of the hostilities against Iraq.

Ankara tried to tighten its ties with the West also by applying for the membership of the European Union. Although to this end several rounds of talks were held, they came to no fruition. The Turkish authorities must have felt used and abused. Their country was good enough to serve as a military bridgehead in the region, which was in the American interests, or as a barrier keeping the excessive numbers of the so called refugees out of the European continent, but not good enough to become an EU member or to enjoy NATO’s full trust because President Obama rejected the possibility of selling Ankara the Patriot anti-aircraft defence system; or, refused technology share that President Erdoğan wanted to purchase while acquiring the system. Lack of trust?

Then came the failed (or foiled?) coup d’etat, where American and European engagement can well be surmised. Rumour has it that President Erdoğan’s plane would have been shot down if his pilot had not used a subterfuge deceiving the approaching aircraft. Turkish air defence is integrated with that of NATO’s, so if NATO leaders had a hand in those dramatic events, Erdoğan’s aerial defence may have been or was impeded or even incapacitated. A good enough cause for Turkey’s President to look around for emancipating himself from the West’s friendly embrace. He learnt it first hand that his trust in the alliance must not be blind, and so he does not want to have all of Turkey’s defence system integrated with that of NATO’s, which is precisely how he replied to the US concerns that S-400 was not interoperable with the alliance’s.

S-400 is reputed to be a very effective surface-to-air defensive system. Its missiles have high maneuverability and a lightning speed of 6 to 14 Mach! Ankara need not worry with the fact that Turkey has just been suspended from the F-35 project and that the delivery of these aicraft has been stopped. If the Russian system is as good as described, F-35 fighter jets – regarded as one of the best and as such though desired by many countries – stand little chance in confrontation with S-400. To make the deal more attractive to Turkey, Russians agreed to share some of the technology used in producing the system.

Turkey remains a NATO member. Time will show whether Americans will impose further sanctions, especially within the meaning of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Be it as it may, the Turkish authorities have gained more political leverage and can up the ante in their dealings with the West. Moscow is driving a wedge into NATO, whose members are afraid that now some of the Alliance’s sensitive information or technology is going to be by necessity known to the Russians. That’s admittedly true but isn’t it also true that NATO through Turkey will gain access to the Russian cutting edge air-defence technology? Either President Erdoğan will (be made to) change his mind or will be overthrown or naturally replaced by a pro-Western politician. Russia has secured its firm foothold in Syria by thwarting American plans there. Is Turkey another stake in the game between Moscow and Washington?


1. Does S400 make F 35 obsolete ? Full analysis, Defence Updates 2018-02-02.

2. S-400 and More: Why Does Turkey Want Russian Military Technology so Badly? The National Interest 2019-07-14.

3. SAM Papers No 16: On Turkey’s Missile Defense Strategy: The Four Faces of the S-400 Deal Between Turkey and Russia, Center for Strategic Research 2019-04.

4. Turkey can’t have both American F-35s and Russia’s S-400s: US, Al Jazeera 2019-07-16.

5. Turkey continues to receive S-400 missile system equipment as more planes arrive from Russia, Daily Sabah 2019-07-14.

6. US expels Turkey from F-35 fighter jet programme, Al Jazeera YouTube 2019-07-18.

7. Why Turkey’s S-400 missile purchase angers the US, Financial Times 2019-07-12.

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