Earlier this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a conference that Ankara would not cancel the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system, whatever the consequences. The US had threatened to impose sanctions if Ankara did not reverse its decision.
From an economic perspective, Turkey has already paid dearly for the decision to purchase the Russian armory: As a NATO member, it had been included in the F-35 program, which not only allowed it to purchase the alliance’s fighter jet, but also included the country in the manufacturing program for the F-35. Turkey will now forgo manufacturing more than 900 parts for the aircraft and any future technology transfer resulting thereof.
Last Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ratcheted up the rhetoric, threatening the closure of the American air force base in Incirlik in southern Turkey in response to possible US sanctions and a Senate resolution labelling the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.
Both have aggravated the already strained relationship between the US and Turkey. Incirlik is one of the largest US bases in the Middle East. It accommodates nuclear warheads, and was the point of origin for many sorties by the US air force into Syria to combat Daesh.
Turkey’s geographic position at the crossroads between East and West inherently exposes it to geopolitical frictions. Furthermore, Turkey has been an important member of NATO since 1952, despite historic squabbles with fellow member Greece and an incursion into Cyprus in 1974. As the alliance’s easternmost member, Turkey constitutes the major bulwark against the tensions and military strife in the Middle East.
On one hand, the purchase of the S-400 poses a major dilemma for NATO. One of the key features of the F-35 is its stealth capability. Letting the Russian defense system so close to the newest NATO kit is tantamount to setting the proverbial fox among the pigeons.
On the other hand, Turkey signed the communique of the 70th NATO Summit in London in early December, which declared Russia a major threat to the alliance. Erdogan did so despite NATO’s refusal to declare the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) a terrorist group.
The YPG fought Daesh shoulder to shoulder with several NATO allies, while Ankara protested that the group was allied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The compromise language in the communique included a condemnation of all forms of terrorism.
Turkey is not just important to NATO. It matters a great deal to Europe too. For one, it is a trading partner and a transit nation for oil and gas, via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan, the TurkStream pipeline from Russia and the recently inaugurated Trans-Anatolian pipeline from Azerbaijan. The latter has 50 percent of TurkStream’s capacity, and diversifies the Balkans away from total dependence and unreliability of Russian pipeline gas via Ukraine.
Furthermore, the EU signed a deal with Turkey for which the latter would seal its border to Europe to preclude Syrian refugees from embarking on the eastern Balkans refugee route, against €6 billion ($6.67 billion) in transfer payments at the height of the refugee crisis.
Ankara is trying to find accommodation with the powers that be as a matter of survival and territorial integrity.
Turkey has not received all the promised funds due to European criticism about the treatment of journalists and the state of human rights in the country. Turkey is still hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, which is a strain on its faltering economy.
Ankara felt rebuffed by EU member states when accession talks came to a standstill more than a decade ago. Both sides now seem to understand that Turkish membership of the EU will not be on the cards for a long time to come, if at all. But Europe still needs Turkey and vice versa.
NATO membership has been beneficial to Turkey’s standing and prestige in the world, just as Ankara has been regarded as an important ally when it comes to military unrest in the East and a last line of defense against Russia. The decision to buy the S-400 puts the latter into question from a NATO perspective.
From the Turkish perspective, things look different. Russia has become an important player in the Syrian conflict. While Ankara and Moscow stand on opposite sides when it comes to the Assad regime, it is in Turkey’s interest to get along with the emerging strong foreign power to the south, especially as the cosy relationship between the YPG and several NATO members has long been a thorn in the side of Turkey, which sees Kurdish nationalism as a threat to its territorial integrity.
Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said before the outbreak of the Syrian conflict that Ankara wanted friendly relations with all its neighbors, which is a good survival tactic in a region as volatile as the Middle East. But developments in Syria put an end to that doctrine. If anything, the region has become more volatile post-Arab Spring.
Alliances are ever shifting, and Turkey is trying to find accommodation with the powers that be as a matter of survival and territorial integrity. Erdogan voices his opinions vociferously and not always to the liking of leaders in the West.
To be fair though, neither did he shy away from confronting President Vladimir Putin when a Russian fighter jet violated Turkish airspace and was shot down in November 2015. That action had serious economic ramifications because Russian tourists stayed away as a consequence. In 2018, Russians constituted the largest contingent of tourists in Turkey.
There is a price to pay for living at the crossroads between East and West, having the Russian bear to the north and bordering a conflict to the south. In a region of ever-shifting alliances, survival skills are important. This may go a long way to understanding Ankara’s decision to purchase the S-400. At the same time, it begs the question as to how sustainable Turkey’s NATO membership is. This is a conundrum with no easy answer.