Turkey’s dispute with the US over its acquisition of long-range missile defence system S-400 is not a one-off: the country’s ambition to become more self-reliant in military hardware and security is a point of contention between it, the US and, more broadly, NATO. Turkey’s gradual adoption of hard power and a transactional foreign policy also puts it at odds with traditional allies. If the US follows through on threats of sanctions and NATO makes no move to improve ties with Ankara, Turkey will opt to withstand economic suffering and align itself closer to Russia despite the lack of dividend.
Turkey’s purchase in September 2017 of a $2.5bn long-range missile defence system from a Russian company has strained its relationship with the US and NATO. Ankara has been on the lookout for such a system for many years, as part of a wider effort to update its military hardware, and has even advised domestic manufacturers to develop their own. Its eventual pick of Russian state-owned company Rostec’s S-400 over the US’s Raytheon Patriot system, upset its traditional North American ally, which responded by urging Turkey to discontinue procurement from Russia or face the risk of being expelled from its F-35 fighter jet programme, through which Turkey has ordered 120 jets for a price tag of $12.36bn.
This is not the first time the US and Turkey have been in a standoff over the latter’s acquisition of missile systems. After failing to secure a $7.8bn Raytheon contract in 2009, Turkey signed a $3.4bn deal with China for long-range missiles, which was subsequently abandoned due to US pressure. This time, however, the situation is different: the S-400 purchase has repeatedly been called a “done-deal,” payments have been partially processed and delivery is expected by the third quarter of this year. As a result, Turkey’s transatlantic ties are on the brink of a major break.
S-400 purchase intended as a signal of Turkey’s growing independence from NATO
Turkey’s rift with the US and NATO is broader than a single procurement dispute. Its government understands that buying from Raytheon would have provided its military with a more integrated architecture for ballistic defence for an additional charge of just $1bn. By deciding not to do so, it is making a political point: where its allies see an actor willing to compromise NATO assets, Turkey sees a decade-long history of banned sales, shelved contracts and unsatisfying technological transfers. By purchasing the S-400, Ankara has opted for flexibility, low prices and above all technological transfer possibilities in order to sustain its military ambitions.
However, despite growing defiance towards traditional allies, Ankara has also shown it wishes to avoid alienating them altogether. Various officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s special adviser and the president himself, have given assurances that Turkey’s relationship with the US and NATO is different from its links with non-NATO countries, and that its ties with the latter are complementary rather than potential alternatives. The government also proposed setting up a technical working committee to ensure safe compatibility between NATO and S-400 systems, but this was rejected by Washington due to Ankara’s non-postponement of Russian orders.
Turkish foreign policy adopts transactional approach to gain leverage over traditional allies
In addition to reflecting Turkey’s long-lasting NATO alignment, this hybrid approach to foreign policy demonstrates one of the inherent contradictions of the Erdoğan era: looking away from the West while remaining grounded in it.
Erdoğan’s tenure has been dominated by transactional politics, exemplified by his government’s tit-for-tat exchanges with the US over sanctions, political prisoners and relations with Russia. The Turkish president is confident that his military and political strength will allow him to extract more technology transfers from traditional allies or give Turkey enough leverage to move towards alternative alliances. Discounting Turkey’s newfound reliance on hard power would be troubling for the US as it could lead to the loss of a valuable ally. By doubling arms imports from the US last year to cover itself from the risk of an arms embargo, Turkey has shown it is serious in drifting away from traditional partners.
This shifting policy stems from the leadership’s cultivation of Turkey’s image as a pan-Turkic, post-Ottoman and Islamic global power with ambitions spanning from East Africa to Central Asia. This self-appraisal is coupled with a deep suspicion of internationalism coming from an ideological, even emotional understanding of foreign policy, complementing Erdoğan’s distrust of the Turkish liberal elite and his political coalition’s siege mentality, seeing foreign machinations everywhere.
Russo-Turkish relations strengthen in areas of mutual interest, but relationship likely to prove unsatisfactory for Ankara
Erdoğan’s revisionist worldview and preference for transactional manoeuvring have been the driver behind Turkey’s closer ties with Russia. While the Turkish president neither fully trusts nor sees Russia as an alternative to NATO, it generally perceives it as friendlier due to its non-judgmental stance and pursuance of independence based on hard power. Putin, for his part, understands Erdoğan best in his, at times, anti-Western rhetoric and global ambitions. For now, the two countries maintain a no-strings-attached relationship based on areas of bilateral leverage, including natural gas imports, the Syrian refugees and Jihadis, and the Ukraine and Georgia.
Domestically, this Eurasian shift is being reinforced by a bureaucratic shuffle, whereby people who view Russia, China and Iran as strategic partners are increasingly appointed to administrative positions at all levels. Indeed, traditionally secular and westward-looking institutions like the finance ministry, the military and the diplomatic corps are becoming less reflective of Turkey’s pro-NATO legacy, as they are being re-staffed with junior government loyalists, in a process defined as “degradation” by NATO Supreme Commander Curtis Scaparrotti. Gradually, the Turkish state risks accelerating the current government’s estrangement policy instead of holding it back. This will be particularly damning at times of crisis management, as state agents will fail to understand allies’– especially the US’s – frustrations with Turkey and will, consequently, move relations towards adversity instead of alliance.
In the long term, however, Turkey’s tilt towards Eurasian partners does not represent an economically driven strategy capable of offsetting the costs of disrupting its integration into Western markets and institutions. Turkey’s strategic value will decrease in the eyes of Moscow as soon as the country moves away from its Western alignment: Russia’s promise of technological transfer is unlikely to materialise, while its military industrial sector is unlikely to suffice to meet Turkish procurement needs. Although coveted by the state, a truly Eurasian realignment remains a mirage both on the international and domestic scene: Turkey lacks adequate knowledge of its Eurasian partners, faces difficult tensions with China over its treatment of the Uyghurs and has failed to act upon its brotherly rhetoric towards Iran. On the domestic side, a sizeable portion of the population still looks up to traditional allies and is critical of the government’s shift to Eurasia. It is NATO’s duty to capitalise on this sentiment and to avoid further alienating Turkey: since sanctioning Turkey is likely to prove counterproductive, the alliance should strive to mediate between the US and Turkey, and work towards easing intra-NATO procurement for the latter. After all, the recent mayoral election results in Istanbul show that democratic downfall and disassociation from traditional allies are not inevitable for Turkey.
Daniel Moshashai is the regional analyst at Castlereagh Associates. He specialises in Iran, the GCC, economic diversification in national agendas and geopolitics in the Middle East.