Bloomberg’s Selcan Hacaoglu broke the news on Thursday, July 13, that the governments of Turkey and Russia have reached an agreement to supply the Turkish Air Force with the Russian S-400 missile defense system, effectively adding Turkey –a NATO member– to a privileged basket of Russian S-400 customers that until now only included China and India.
Even though the document remains to be signed, if it goes forward, the $2.5 billion inter-governmental agreement will equip Turkey with 2 Russian S-400 batteries and further facilitate the production of 2 additional batteries in Turkey under license. This apparently satisfies to some degree Turkey’s long-standing TOT requirements which had previously forced –along with pressure from NATO– a preliminary deal between Turkey and China regarding the Chinese HQ-9 missile system, itself a copy of the older-gen Russian S-300, to be scrapped.
Back in 2013, Turkey’s missile defense program was dubbed T-LORAMIDS with a reported budget earmark of $3.2 billion. So how the Turks and Russians were able to reach an agreement for a newer generation missile system at a considerably lower price while satisfying Turkey’s technology transfer and local production clauses remains a mystery. But it’s not surprising given the background of Russo-Turkish rapprochement following curious recent events like the Turkish downing of a Russian jet fighter on the Syrian-Turkish border, assassination of the former Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov and Russia’s support of the Erdogan government during and immediately after a failed coup attempt last summer.
S-400 is currently Russia’s most advanced air defense missile system in active deployment and Russia’s apparent willingness to not only sell it to Turkey but also provide a certain level of transfer of technology suggest one of three things:
(1) Russia and Turkey, or rather Putin and Erdogan, are forming a de facto alliance where they’re beginning to view each other as “strategic partners” and important elements in facilitating the survival of their respective regimes at home. Rising trade volume between the two countries and enhanced cooperation in Syria and over the so-called “southern energy corridor” help support this line of thinking. Needless to say, Russia will see a Turkey that’s more closely aligned with itself as a serious blow to NATO and a counterwight to NATO expansionism in Russia’s sphere of influence.
(2) Russia has no intention of supplying the S-400 to Turkey, let alone sharing its technology, and all Putin is doing is scoring points with Erdogan to get him to force Turkey on a more pro-Russian path at the expense of the West, the EU and the US. Even if we were to lay out an optimistic time table, the first S-400 wouldn’t arrive in Turkey for well over a year as it either has to be diverted from Chinese/Indian stock, or manufactured anew. A more realistic time frame would be 2-3 years. It is very possible that Putin calculates this to be enough time for Russia to significantly progress or even settle its tactical goals regarding Syria, the Caucasus and the southern energy corridor, all theaters where Turkey poses a risk to Russian interests. Getting Erdogan on his side, at least temporarily, minimizes the risk for Putin.
(3) The S-400s Turkey will receive and later manufacture will be inferior in quality and will more closely resemble the capabilities of the S-300 than the top-shelf stuff Turkey hopes them to be. Makes sense for Russia from a national security point of view, and if Turkey is in on the secret, it also explains the relatively lower price point they were able to negotiate. Turkey gets a long-desired missile defense system that “does the job but doesn’t threaten Russia”, Russia gets to boast about having made a strategic sale to a NATO country, both Putin and Erdogan get to improve their positions at home and show the West that they’re here to stay. It’s all fine and dandy.
While analysts were scratching their heads over the news of Turkey’s S-400s, Turkish MoD Fikri Isik anounced just a day later on Friday, July 14, that Turkey has signed an agreement with Eurosam, an Italian-French consortium, to “jointly manufacture missile defense systems”. Eurosam is the maker of SAMP/T, an alternative and compatitor to the Russian S-400. Unlike the S-400, which Turkey plans to deploy stand-alone, SAMP/T can be integrated with existing NATO systems and data networks.
The timing of the two deals being reached within a few days of each other is quite interesting. Since Turkey simply doesn’t exactly swim in cash, chances are one system will get the budgetary go ahead for actual procurement at the expense of the other. Will it be the SAMP/T or the S-400 that makes it?
Maybe both. Maybe none. But does it really matter?
The actual question in everyone’s mind is this: How should NATO react to and manage Turkey’s latest overtures with the emerging Siberian bear? Will it look at it as just a Turkish problem or will it direct some crticism toward itself, its handling of the ‘free radicals’ in the region, and investigate the dynamics forcing Turkey to act in such uncontional ways? Is Turkey just another flag on a pole at the NATO headquarters? Or does it hold a speacial, pragmatic place in the alliance due to its dominant location controlling access to the Black Sea, its having the second largest number of boots in the alliance, its large and predominantly Muslim population briding the East and the West, or its being NATO’s easternmost, and southernmost castle constituting a first line of defense against threats emenating from all sorts of directions?
Maybe the West will be better served by embracing Turkey for who and what it is instead of trying to resist and repress the growing socioeconomic pressures within it. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time the big brothers allow Turkey to leave the kiddie table and come sit with them.