Russian missiles for Turkey? What’s at stake as collision looms.

Why We Wrote This

For years NATO watchers have looked on with concern as Turkey has courted Russia even as its ties with the U.S. have frayed. Now a Russian missile deal has become a pivotal issue of Turkish identity.

Presidential Press Service/AP
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (2nd r.) and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (l.) look on, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29.

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The United States and Turkey have been on a collision course for years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the close U.S. alliance with Syrian Kurdish militias, whom Turkey regards as terrorists, are among the main irritants.

Now the collision is imminent. NATO member Turkey, which has been on tap to purchase 100 of the Pentagon’s F-35 stealth fighters, is a week away from taking delivery of Russian missiles that are part of a new air defense system.

While President Donald Trump made a last-minute effort in Osaka, Japan, to ease the crisis, the missile purchase risks unraveling the NATO alliance and could bring sanctions from Congress against Turkey’s weakened economy. Yet Mr. Erdoğan seems resolved to move ahead with the deal, because, analysts say, it speaks to Turkey’s long-term direction and even its identity.

“It is an existential question,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Turkey sees that as its ticket to a more independent policy, but in reality it is probably going to make Turkey beholden to Russia far more than it is prepared to be.”

As the United States and NATO-ally Turkey braced for an inevitable collision over Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian-made air defense system, a ray of hope appeared to emerge from the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

Could the two countries avert a crisis that risks unraveling the NATO alliance, as Turkey turns away from the West and toward Russia for part of its defense needs?

Deliveries of the Russian S-400 missile system are to begin in a week, Turkey says. But U.S. officials have been warning for months that if Turkey goes through with the $2.5 billion purchase, it will result in U.S. sanctions against Turkey’s already weak economy and jeopardize its role in the Pentagon’s F-35 stealth fighter program and purchase of 100 of the planes.

But then President Donald Trump appeared to ease the pressure, after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Japan.

Mr. Trump blamed Barack Obama for forcing Turkey’s turn to Russia, saying his predecessor blocked sales of the U.S. Patriot missile system – without mentioning that Turkey had, in fact, rejected the sale three times, because its demands for technology and joint production were not met.

Mr. Erdoğan had not been “treated fairly” and wanted the American missile, Mr. Trump stated. The Turkish leader is “a NATO member, and he’s someone I’ve become friendly with, and you have to treat people fairly. ... You can’t do business that way. It’s not good.”

Turkish identity

But can such diplomatic overtures paper over the ever-widening U.S.-Turkey chasm? Analysts say that is not likely because the proposed purchase speaks to fundamental issues about Turkey’s long-term direction and even its identity. Mr. Erdoğan is sticking with a crucial decision that could hamper NATO weapons systems integration and prove an intelligence bonanza for Russia. And it is the U.S. Congress, not Mr. Trump, that will impose sanctions.

More broadly, Mr. Erdoğan’s decision is not only technical but also political, and designed to signal Turkey’s unhappiness with the U.S. and other NATO allies on a host of issues, from criticism of Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule at home, to his troops’ role in Syria.

“If Turkey proceeds with the S-400 Russian missile system – and all indications are that it will – I think it’s the beginning of the unraveling of Turkey’s longtime relationship with NATO,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“It’s not happened previously where one NATO member imposes military and economic sanctions on another,” says Mr. Hakura. “The key player in this is not President Trump, it’s Congress. There is total bipartisan consensus [to penalize] Turkey. This is one of the few issues attracting bipartisan consensus in Washington.”

According to Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, this is a “black-and-white issue” for Congress.

“Either Mr. Erdoğan cancels the Russian deal, or he doesn’t,” Representative Engel of New York said in the House in early June after passage of a resolution condemning the planned purchase. “There is no future for Turkey having both Russian weapons and American F-35s. There is no third option. There’s no path for mitigation that will allow Turkey to have its cake and eat it, too.”

‘Existential question’

Indeed, U.S.-Turkey relations have been marked more by clashes than harmony since 2013, when the Obama White House criticized Mr. Erdoğan’s handling of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and press freedom.

A host of problems have since marred relations, including, crucially in Turkey’s calculation, devoted U.S. military support for Kurdish militias in northern Syria that battled the Islamic State (ISIS). The Syrian Kurds are linked to militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey who are fighting Ankara.

In early June, then-acting U.S. defense chief Patrick Shanahan issued an ultimatum to Turkey’s defense minister, warning that if the S-400 deal with Moscow was not scrapped by July 31, the U.S. would shut Turkey out of the F-35 project, which is now being rolled out across Europe. Turkish pilots already in training on the F-35 have been withdrawn from classes in the U.S.

Sanctions will follow, the Pentagon warned, in compliance with U.S. legislation designed to hamper the Russian defense industry.

“It is an existential question. Something like this couldn’t have happened a decade ago, or even five years ago,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Yes, it does underline Turkey’s yearning to emerge as a more independent global power, no longer entirely dependent on the United States,” says Ms. Aydınstaşbaş.

“Turkey sees that as its ticket to a more independent policy, but in reality it is probably going to make Turkey beholden to Russia far more than it is prepared to be,” she says. “And Turkey’s exit from the West would be a very painful exercise, both in terms of our military culture, and our economy. So S-400s are not just about S-400s. It’s about the identity of Turkey and its place in the world.”

American support for Syrian Kurdish militias, whom Turkey considers to be “terrorists,” has especially grated on Ankara. U.S. and Turkish troops deployed cheek by jowl in Syria, ostensibly fighting with the same anti-ISIS objectives, have at times come close to open conflict.

Unlikely shift toward Russia

But another aim of Turkey in Syria has for years been to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And that is directly opposed to the goal of Russia, which has deployed air and ground forces, alongside Iranian troops and proxy forces, to preserve the Assad regime.

Turkey has nevertheless worked with both Russia and Iran, agreeing in 2017 to create and monitor several de-escalation zones in Syria, in a deal that deliberately shut out the U.S.

Yet Turkey’s shift toward Russia could not be more unlikely, since Ankara “feels threatened by its massive neighbor” to the north, say Soner Çağaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Andy Taylor, a former congressional staffer, in a recent analysis in The Hill.

“Between the 17th and 20th centuries the Ottoman and Russian empires were deadly rivals,” they note. “Until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Turks and Russians fought 17 major wars, which the Turks overall lost.”

Turkey’s decision to join NATO “was driven by its fear of Russia,” they say, adding that Stalin’s demand for some of Turkey’s land in 1946 prompted Ankara to join the Western alliance in 1952.

“Of course, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is happy to sell weapons to a NATO member to drive a wedge in the alliance,” the analysts note. “Moscow can use the S-400 system to conduct invaluable intelligence-gathering efforts against the F-35,” a project Turkey has been a partner with from the start.

Turkey-Russia relations took a bitter turn in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet fighter that had crossed from Syria into its airspace for 17 seconds. Mr. Putin called it “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists” and imposed sanctions on Turkey.

Decline of a ‘trustable ally’

While that relationship has clearly been patched up – and several million Russian citizens have been allowed again to each year enjoy their vacations on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – the S-400 deal marks a concrete repudiation by Turkey of the U.S.

“It is certainly going to be quite a historic alienation between the two, if indeed Turkey does go through with the purchase,” says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a think tank in Istanbul.

“The technical aspect is it has taken the U.S. far too long a time to come up with a package that could satisfy Turkey’s needs,” says Mr. Ülgen. “But this has come on top of a political atmosphere which has been quite poisonous, in the sense that there has been a very clear and widespread erosion of trust in the U.S. commitment to Turkey, and Turkey’s security.”

The result is that the U.S., instead of being viewed as a “trustable ally,” is seen in Ankara as disregarding Turkey’s core national security interests “by aligning itself with and weaponizing” Kurdish militias in Syria, says Mr. Ülgen. “It’s the trust void that’s been left by the U.S., which has allowed Russia to become so aligned with Turkey over this time, and that’s quite remarkable.”

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