Turkey chooses independence from NATO: what will be the price of this freedom?

(by Laura Santilli)

On July 12, Russia began delivering the first part of its S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey. What would have prompted Turkey, a member of NATO, to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia? What were the reactions within the Atlantic Alliance and, above all, what were the consequences of this choice in the already strained relationship between Turkey and the United States?


1. What happened


On July 12 at Mürted Air Force Base, northeast of Ankara, the delivery of S-400 missile systems by Russian cargo aircraft began. Deliveries continued in the following days by sea, until last July 16, to arrive at a final delivery of 120 missiles[1]. The S-400 Triumph, an evolution of the previous S-300, is a new generation anti-aircraft weapon system, designed and developed by NPO Almaz, a Russian defence company, produced by MKB Fakel, a Russian state company and exported by Rosoboronexport. It is a weapon system capable of intercepting and striking warplanes, ballistic and cruise missiles.


Turkey is not the first country to which Russia sold this defence missile system. In November 2014, in fact, Moscow and Beijing signed a $3 billion agreement to supply six battalions of the S-400 system, which allowed China to significantly strengthen its defense system. The first deliveries of the S-400s arrived in China between the end of 2017 and the first months of 2018[2]. Moreover, in October 2017, during a state visit to Russia, the Saudi King Salman reached an agreement with Putin for the supply of the same weapons system for his country[3]. To return to the agreement with Turkey, it was signed on 11 April 2017 between the leaders of the two countries, for a total of 2.5 billion, corresponding to the purchase of two S-400 batteries[4]. As soon as news of the arrival of the first batches of S-400s in Turkey was confirmed by the Kremlin and the Turkish government, statements by NATO officials and US government officials were not long in coming in a very heated tone.


2. The NATO response


The purchase of the Russian S-400 defense system by Turkey is a tough choice for NATO. The decision to open up to a new defense system, the Russian one, could compromise the security of the strategic and defense assets of the Atlantic Alliance. In fact, the S-400 system could be able to decipher and integrate the operational codes of the Atlantic defence modules, their radar systems in particular, for example those of the F-35s. This fear has been expressed by several NATO officers, who fear a weakening of the defensive capabilities of the Alliance. The NATO, however, cannot be surprised by the arrival of the S-400s in Turkey, given that the agreement for their acquisition had already been made in 2017, has instead, by now, the certainty of a betrayal by one of its most strategic members from the point of view of regional control and defense, a bridge between the West and the Middle East.


Turkey, a NATO member for sixty-seven years and the second largest army among the member countries of the Atlantic Alliance, is also home to NATO military bases, including Incirlik (near the city of Adana, in southern Turkey and on the border with Syria) which houses American nuclear weapons. Jim Townsend, former assistant to the Secretary of Defense in Europe for NATO and now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said that this episode is yet another warning of the political weakness within the Atlantic Alliance, in which these political disagreements too often occur. The story of the S-400s purchased by Turkey, however, represents, according to Townsend, a defeat of a different level within the Alliance: the purchase, in fact, undermines and diminishes in a certain sense, the weight of the defensive capacity of NATO. He also states: "This is not something that can be negotiated with Turkey, a major problem has arisen and actions will have to be taken. The problem for NATO is unprecedented, but it will create one, in the sense: how will NATO behave from now on towar