Only a year and a half ago, Turkey shot down a Russian jet for allegedly violating the Turkish airspace for several seconds. Relations have improved so fast that Moscow is now reinforcing Turkey’s air defense system.
As if Turkey’s strained ties with NATO was not enough, Ankara is now looking forward to purchasing Russian air defense system that will surely alarm the Alliance. With the purchase of S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft defense system, Ankara may be preparing for a potential fallout with NATO members.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday that Turkey and Russia reached an agreement on the acquisition of Russian S-400 system, rejecting criticisms that Turkey is distancing itself from NATO.
The negotiations on the price and joint production are still ongoing, but the two countries “agreed in principle” on the deal, Mr. Cavusoglu said before leaving for Uzbekistan. “We will buy it,” the foreign minister said, adding that Ankara wanted to buy NATO missile defense systems, but the alliance did not meet Turkey half way.
Russia’s S-400 Triumph system uses four different missiles to destroy targets at a short- (40 kilometers) to very long (400 kilometers) range.
Aurel Braun, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, told The Globe Post that Turkey reached the deal with Russia by defying the EU and NATO.
“This is a declaration of defiance against NATO and against the EU by the Erdogan government,” the professor said, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “He [Erdogan] would like to buy himself and his government as much immunity, as much prophylactic against external pressure as possible by having alternate suppliers of very sophisticated equipment.”
Mr. Braun, who is also an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, noted that the EU has been uncomfortable as Turkey slowly buried its democracy.
“Turkey is very fast becoming a dictatorship. Some would argue it already is one,” he said.
In a widely contested referendum on constitutional changes last month, Turkish voters granted sweeping powers to Mr. Erdogan, who will have authority to dissolve Parliament and declare a state of emergency. The constitutional changes also weakened checks and balances and gave the president a greater control over the judiciary.
Only two weeks into the referendum, Turkish authorities dismissed over 14,000 public officials, most of them police officers, in the latest wave of a purge in association with the failed coup attempt last summer. The Turkish government also blocked Wikipedia in a dissent crackdown and jailed nearly 3,000 individuals in connection with the coup attempt.
“This goes against values of the EU,” Mr. Braun said. “Possible membership in the EU is becoming even more remote than was before. This is also affecting the relations with NATO, because the EU members, most of them, are also members of NATO, and the interests overlap.”
Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he attaches great importance to values regarding the rule of law and pressed Turkey to conduct prosecutions based on the “full respect for the rule of law.” He added that they discussed this issue with the Turkish government.
Despite Turkey’s uneasy relationship with NATO, Mr. Erdogan is looking forward to opening a blank page with the administration of Donald J. Trump. Turkish foreign minister quoted the Trump administration as saying that they are “aware of mistakes made by the Obama administration,” and that they are willing to fix these mistakes. He talked about the necessity to accelerate relations with Washington.
President Erdogan is scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart at the White House on May 16. Critics warned that President Trump’s congratulatory call to Mr. Erdogan a day after the disputed referendum and the Turkish president’s White House visit is enabling him back at home.
But it is not yet clear if Turkey’s renewed ties with the U.S. will translate into an improved cooperation on the military front.
“Turkey wants to show its independence. As the West was not willing to provide Turkey with anti-ballistic-systems, they go shopping elsewhere. The whole story of the anti-ballistic-systems for NATO and for Russia is a proof of missed chances and misperceptions since the early 2000s,” Rainer Stinner from German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told The Globe Post.
Mr. Stinner, who was also a member of the German Bundestag from 2002 to 2013, said the S-400 deal clearly indicates that Turkey is pursuing its own foreign policy agenda.
Turkey’s talks with Moscow to purchase S-400 defense systems come at a time when Mr. Erdogan is preparing to attend the NATO Summit in Brussels on May 25.
Mr. Braun argued that Turkey is buying a potent air defense system as sort of insurance in case the government of Mr. Erdogan is cut off from armaments, which can potentially happen since the Turkish government is becoming more and more repressive.
Throughout its membership with NATO, Turkey’s democratic deficit had not been made an issue as much as it is today. The military had toppled elected Turkish governments 4 times since Turkey joined the alliance in 1952, hanging prime ministers (in 1960) and jailing tens of thousands of people (in 1980). But this is the first time that NATO’s only Muslim member is jumping on the Russian bandwagon and exhibiting signs of alignment with countries like China.
“Additional confusion comes from the flirtatious engagement Turkey is increasingly enjoying with the China-dominated SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization]. Turkey´s involvement goes far beyond the observer status,” Mr. Stinner stated.
He also noted that Ankara is drifting toward authoritarianism and underscored that NATO members should very closely monitor Turkey’s foreign policy agenda.
NATO has to make sure that its very important ally “still belongs to the club,” Mr. Stinner continued. “NATO has to begin to make contingency plans for the case that Turkey is drifting further apart and eventually may not be counted as a trusted ally anymore.”
He urged EU member states and NATO allies to use different available channels to nudge the country into a right direction, offering the EU, NATO, Council of Europe and G20 as available channels.
“So far I cannot see a unified strategy to counter Turkey´s unfriendly behavior,” he concluded.
The purchase of the S-400 system does not mean instant deployment, according to Mr. Braun, since its delivery would require a considerable amount of time.
“It is not completely inconceivable that Turkey could change its mind and this deal might still somehow fall through or not be implemented,” he said. “But the optics are very worrisome from the perspective of NATO. It is very worrisome from the perspective of the EU.”
A NATO official, contacted by The Globe Post for a comment on the deal, referred all the questions on the issue to “the relevant Turkish authorities.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and President Erdogan would discuss in detail military technical cooperation during their meeting in the Russian city of Sochi on May 3.