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Posted by Claire Atwood on Mar 31, 2017 5:04:00 PM

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S-400 defense system negotiations signal the strengthening ties between the two powers

As the latest link in their growing relationship, Russia and Turkey are amid negotiations for the sale of the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system to Turkey. Negotiations signal Turkey’s shift from the West to Russia. Both countries seek unique objectives in the relationship. Russia is working to drive a wedge between NATO and an outlier member country. Turkey is hoping to benefit from the scale of the Russian economy and military while drawing the attention of the West. The relationship depends on realpolitik in place of shared, steadfast ethics.1

The potential purchase of the Russian S-400 defense system is part of Turkey’s effort to modernize its forces and achieve technological independence from the West.2 The sale could represent an opening for Russian industry into Turkey. Until recently, the Turkish military market worked exclusively with NATO-country products. The negotiations between Turkey and a major non-Western power are similar to Turkey’s attempt in 2013 to acquire the Chinese-built HQ-9 air defense system. The S-400 system is an anti-aircraft weapon developed by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau. It can fire several missile variants, including long-range, medium-range, and short-range munitions.3 Negotiations began in August 2016.

The S-400 negotiations signal the latest strengthening of the Russian-Turkey relationship. The country’s diplomats have brokered a ceasefire in Aleppo during peace talks in Kazakhstan. A few months ago, the countries were accusing each other of supporting the Islamic State. They are now coordinating airstrikes against it. They signed a major gas pipeline deal and have agreed to resume work on a nuclear plant in southern Turkey. They have pledged to increase bilateral trade by more than fivefold – to $100 billion a year.4 After the violent coup attempt on Turkish President Erdogan’s government, Russian President Putin offered a speedy condemnation.

Mr. Putin’s primary objective is to separate Turkey from its NATO allies. Russia’s actions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia demonstrate a desire to weaken the West. NATO serves as an obstacle in this endeavor. NATO is a consensus-driven organization and any outlier carries disproportionate internal influence.5 For a country sitting on the crossroads of the East and West, Turkey’s membership already draws attention. In a multi-national poll, citizens of NATO countries were asked which military power they would want fighting on their side if attacked. The Turkish citizenry chose Russia.6 Mr. Putin recognizes this sentiment and seeks to exploit it for his aspirations.

Turkey seeks a stronger relationship to reap Russian money and influence while simultaneously attracting the West’s attention. Turkey cannot afford to have Russia as an enemy, whether militarily in the Middle East or economically in trade and tourism. When Turkey shot down a Russian plane in 2015, Mr. Putin cut off Turkey from the Middle East. Russian sanctions cost Turkey at least $10 billion. Mr. Erdogan knows the importance of Russian energy and tourists. He is still waiting on Russia to lift sanctions on Turkish food products imposed in 2016.4  Besides reaping the benefits of cooperation, Turkey wants the West to pay attention. Mr. Erdogan views the relationship as a means to extract concessions from Western allies. Some members of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party are interested in backing out of NATO commitments.4 Any official movement toward this end will lead to frantic scurrying within NATO. ■

Turkey and Russia will only become closer if President Trump fails to provide Mr. Erdogan the attention he wants. Mr. Erdogan places hope in Mr. Trump. He expects the US to extradite Gulen and sever links with the Kurdish YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Mr. Erdogan knows that he cannot indefinitely straddle the West and the East. NATO and Russia will not tolerate Turkey cozying too closely to the opposing side. The Trump Administration should actively seek to remind Turkey of the benefits of NATO membership and a friendship with the US.

    1. “Syria War: Russian ‘Friendly Fire’ Kills Turkish Soldiers.” BBC. February 9, 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
    2. Dave Majumdar. “Would Russia Really Sell the Deadly S-400 to Turkey?” The National Interest. February 22, 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
    3. Ryan Maass. “Turkey Finalizing S-400 Missile Deal with Russia.” UPI. February 22, 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
    4. “Turkey’s Snuggling Up to Russia is Likely to Hurt It.” The Economist. February 16, 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
    5. Michael Rubin. “Will Russia Flip Turkey?” AEI. February 21, 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
    6. “Four NATO Nations Would Pick Russia to Defend Them if Threatened: Poll.” Bloomberg News. February 17, 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.


Photo Credit:
S-400 Missiles |
Putin and Erdogan |

Spring  2017

Volume 20, Issue 3

31 March