The U.S. is pressuring Turkey to abandon the S-400 deal. What are Turkey’s options?
The S-400 missile system is back in the spotlight. Last week, after renewed pressure from the U.S. government to abandon its deal with Russia, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu shot back defiantly. “Turkey buys anything it needs and nobody can intervene,” he said. “If we need S-400s, we will buy them.” There was, however, an implicit suggestion that things could change. What will the next stage in Turkey’s protracted Missile Drama bring?
►You’ve been speaking to some American diplomats recently about the S-400 issue. Can you describe what you’ve been hearing?
Let me begin by noting that the idea that Turkey should not purchase S-400s from Russia because this would not be in line with NATO’s Integrated Defense System has been gaining ground over time, particularly in the U.S. That doesn’t mean other countries have not been supportive of such criticism. But the U.S. has been leading the opposition and as the date of delivery approaches - we are maybe five months away from the initial deliveries - the issue has gained renewed interest. The argument being made by American diplomats is that there is very strong determination on the part of various actors in the American political system not to accept Turkey’s purchase for fear that it would very seriously compromise Western security.
The American political system is, of course, complicated. When we talk about decision making centers in he US, it’s not just the State Department; it’s not just the Defense Department, the National Security Council or the White House. It’s also the Congress, particularly the Senate because with these arms sales congressional approval is needed. What I was told is that there is a very strong feeling on the part of the U.S. Congress that unless Turkey changes its mind regarding the purchase of the S-400, the Congress will not authorize the sale of Patriot missiles to Turkey, which are presumably being offered on much more favorable terms than before. In addition, there might be other measures such as the banning of the sale of F-35 fighters, of which Turkey has decided to purchase 100. It’s also possible that there would be other restrictions on arms shipments which might include parts of American equipment that are already being used in Turkey.
It’s interesting that the Turkish foreign minister has made some categorical statements that the Turkish decision is firm. But at the same time, he has made encouraging remarks that the negotiations are continuing. I don’t know what this means yet because the American position seems to be that they will not accept anything less than the termination of the purchase.
►So, is there room for negotiation?
Possibly. If you look at past practices, it is possible that the S-400s could be delivered to Turkey but not rendered operational. But then I expect that there would need to be some compensation. Turkey has already paid for these missiles, or made a significant part of the payment, and would probably be under obligation to pay the rest.
In terms of what Turkey wants from a missile purchase, we see three things: First of all, they need to be reasonably priced; secondly Turkey wants technology transfer; and lastly, it wants co-production. The Americans were willing to work on the price but they have not been able to bring it down quite to what the Russians are offering. The difference at this point, however, appears to have been considerably reduced. Technology transfers are not on the table for the Americans. But there is little evidence that the Russians are willing to transfer technology. Similarly, whether there will be co-production with the Russians is a mystery to the public. In short, I suspect that American and Russian conditions regarding either technology transfer or co-production might be quite similar.
►So, t really comes down to pr ce. But n mak ng th s deal w th Russ a, Turkey knows how much of a r sk t s tak ng terms of ts relat onsh p w th NATO, an all ance that t has depended on for decades. Why would t take that r sk?
This is an interesting question to which I do not have a full answer. More specifically, the question you are raising is to what purpose will these missiles be put that is so important that Turkey is willing to risk relations with its allies? A number of speculative statements have been made, for example, regarding missiles that might come from Syria. Some people argue that Turkey is concerned about potential missiles emanating from Iran. Others have speculated about Turkey’s contentious relations with some other neighbors that may even have ally status. The rumors are varied. But the question would also be if Patriots were to be purchased, would they meet those needs less than the S-400s? As we’ve discussed before, as regards capabilities, each system comes with its advantages and disadvantages.
The key point is that the U.S. was initially very reluctant about the sale of Patriot missiles to Turkey, especially when it also included to technology transfers. This is where progress on the purchase stopped and Turkey started shopping around. Turkey initially talked with the Chinese who were willing to transfer technology. But their missiles were not particularly sophisticated. Turkey also contacted the European powers to buy the EUROSAM missiles. I think initially Turkey thought that by signaling that it would go for the S-400, it would be able to persuade its allies that it was in need of such missiles and they should be more open to cooperating. Then one thing led to another although the initial intention may not have been to purchase the S-400. As a positive response failed to come from Turkey’s allies, over time purchasing S-400s became a more serious option.
►This plays nito the broader narrative circulating in Turkey that its supposed allies are collectively trying to keep Turkey down. Will that ultimately continue to push Turkey closer to Russia?
It does seem that the Turkish-Russian relationship is deepening. But I think policymakers should be aware, and I trust that they are aware, that it’s not prudent to rely exclusively on a neighbor with whom you have multi-dimensional relations, some of which are cooperative and others competitive, at the expense of your historical alliances. After all, we should not forget that when Turkey asked for protection against Syria, Germany, Holland and Spain sent in Patriot batteries to protect it. It is important for Turkey to keep the perspective that NATO is still an important element in providing for Turkey’s security, and whatever new capabilities Turkey may develop, it will still have to rely a lot on intra-NATO cooperation.