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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 towards a member that has taken actions that weaken the defense capability of the Alliance?"[5].

The Turkish choice, then, has now created a premise: from now on, especially if NATO's reactions to the Turkish choice are not too compromising, other member countries of the Atlantic Alliance may also choose to buy defense systems outside of it. Townsend considers it unlikely that Turkey will want to abandon NATO or be expelled from it, especially since, from a legal point of view, there is no mechanism to expel a country from the Alliance, or to force it out. So what should we do?

According to the former assistant to the Secretary of Defence in Europe of NATO: "The handover has now begun and will end. Once the handover is complete, the Turkish government will need Russian technicians to arrive to assemble and deploy the S-400s. Subsequently, the Turkish military forces will need training and all these steps will take time." Townsend continues: "The NATO will have to be skillful in getting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to come out of his corner and start playing cards up. Then the question is: will NATO manage to be patient, or will it be too angry to play its cards right?”[6].

3. A further break in the relationship with the United States

The arrival in Ankara of the S-400s was only the drop that broke the camel's back in relations between Turkey and the United States, now strained for several years. With regard to Turkey's decision on the purchase of the Russian defense system, the US has clearly shown itself to be very strict, right from the first contacts on the signing of the missile purchase contract. On several occasions, the US has threatened economic sanctions against Turkey, ordering it to impose sanctions in accordance with the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), an act of the US government that came into force in 2017 that could interfere in the area of Turkish defense spending and its banking sector.

However, the Turkish government has always defended itself in this regard by invoking regional defence and security reasons for the purchase of the S-400s. This motivation did not convince the American government, which froze the delivery of the hundred F-35s that Turkey had already purchased and, in addition, suspended the training of Turkish pilots. The biggest fear for the United States is that the S-400 defence system could be used by the Turkish army alongside the F-35s. Their concern, in fact, is that the S-400 could collect sensitive technical data on F-35s that would be used by Moscow[7]. The relationship between the two countries, however, has been unstable for several years and there are many unresolved political issues between the two governments.

The year in which the tensions between Turkey and the United States imposed themselves on the international scene is 2016: the failed coup in Turkey on 16 July was attributed by President Erdogan to the Hizmet movement (the Service), led by Imam Fethullah Gülen, who has now resided in Pennsylvania for more than twenty years. The Turkish government, especially after the coup d'état of July 2016, has repeatedly requested the extradition of Gülen, but the United States has never granted it. In the last year, the Turkish president has also repeatedly accused a number of American banks and financial institutions of being part of an "interest rate lobby" that speculated against the Turkish lira, putting the country under strong financial pressure.

To this bilateral tension between the two countries, others have been added at international level, particularly on the Syrian front. In 2011, the USA and Turkey, with the Gulf monarchies, were aligned in an attempt to overthrow the Assad regime, but the events took a different course from that imagined by the allies. Turkey came to a confrontation with Russia when it shot down a Russian Sukhoi fighter, but Putin was skillful in exploiting the episode to re-engage with Erdogan and convince him that Russia was more useful to him than his American ally. Not only that. The United States militarily supported the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) led by the YPG (in Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, Popular Protection Unit) Kurdish-Syrian, structural enemy of Erdogan because allied to the PKK, the main militant organization of the Kurds in Turkey.

In the intricate Syrian affair, it is therefore not surprising that the announced withdrawal by President Trump of the marines stationed in northern Syria, the region of Syrian Kurdistan, formed since 2012 under the name of Rojava, never actually happened. In fact, if the United States were to abandon northern Syria, it would offer Turkey the possibility of cancelling the democratic project in the Syrian region of Rojava, as it did in 2018, when Operation "Olive Twig" launched a heavy military operation supported by Turkey, which then led to the fall of the Kurdish-Syrian canton of Afrin. Did the purchase of the Russian S-400s serve to put the United States in check and take a first decisive step towards military cooperation with neighbouring Russia?

4. How to explain the Turkish choice?

The reasons for the choice of the Turkish government are many and we must be careful not to reduce them to a simple desire for greater autonomy in matters of defence, which would therefore be a practical choice, without any rational strategic choice at the base. The decision to purchase the S-400 missiles will not give Turkey greater autonomy in matters of defence, precisely because it will make it dependent at least in the short to medium term on Russia. In addition, Turkey is already dependent on Russia in energy matters: it supplies Turkey with half of the country's natural gas needs and the first line of the TurkStream pipeline project, completed in 2018, increases the strategic importance of the Russian government in the region and on the energy market. Also in the field of nuclear energy, if we consider the Turkish nuclear power plant Akkuyu, located in the southern part of the country and currently operated by the Russian company Rosatom, it is clear that Moscow has a decisive role in the development and management of Turkish energy.

Why, then, would Turkey have chosen to create, through the purchase of the S-400 defence systems, an additional dependency bond with the Russian Government? The choice could perhaps have been dictated by the security challenges that Turkey may face in the medium-long term, such as the Kurdish issue and the jihadists dispersed in the Turkish region after the partial defeat of Isis. If these two issues were to become very critical in the Middle East region, it is likely that the intervention of external powers such as Russia and the United States would be necessary; from this point of view, Turkey could find itself having to conduct a conflict against its Western ally: therefore, differentiating its military apparatus with the purchase of the S-400 defense system would represent a sort of "political corruption", a security in securing Russian support should the Turkish government intervene in the Syrian issue, for example.

From a political point of view, Turkey is now much closer to Russian positions than to American ones: both in solving regional problems, such as the Kurdish case, and in handling dossiers such as the Iranian one or the Venezuelan crisis. In addition to these important political, security and energy reasons, Russia also has another major strength in Turkey: the personal interest of President Erdogan to remain in power for a long time and in order to achieve his goal, he will have to seek and choose well his allies even outside the conventional ones.


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[1] Chiara Cruciati, “Gli S-400 sono arrivati in Turchia, NATO in subbuglio”, Near Est News Agency, 13 july 2019. [2] Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia Starts Delivery of S-400 Missile Defense Systems to China”, The Diplomat, 22 january 2018. [3] Middle East Monitor, “Ambassador: Saudi-Russia missile deal in final stages”, 21 february 2018. [4] Alberto Negri, “Erdogan piccona la vecchia Nato”, Il quotidiano del sud, 13 july 2019. [5] Aaron Mehta, “Turkey has the S-400. The Trump administration is silent.”, Defense news, 13 july 2019. [6] Ibidem [7] CNN video’s:


  • Chiara Cruciati, “Gli S-400 sono arrivati in Turchia, NATO in subbuglio”, Near Est News Agency, 13 july 2019.

  • Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia Starts Delivery of S-400 Missile Defense Systems to China”, The Diplomat, 22 january 2018.

  • Kerim Has, “Turkey, Russia, and the Looming S-400 Crisis”, Middle East Institute online review, 10 july 2019.

  • Aaron Mehta, “Turkey has the S-400. The Trump administration is silent.”, Defense news, 13 july 2019.

  • Middle East Monitor, “Ambassador: Saudi-Russia missile deal in final stages”, 21 february 2018.

  • Alberto Negri, “Erdogan piccona la vecchia Nato”, Il quotidiano del sud, 13 july 2019.

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