The Turkish government says Russia has completed delivery of the first shipment of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, which has been a point of contention with the United States. The announcement comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirms his commitment to use the system next year, while reaffirming his commitment to deepening ties with Russia.
“In the coming spring, God willing in April 2020, we will be able to start using this system,” Erdogan said in a televised speech to party officials at the presidential palace.
The S-400 purchase has already resulted in Turkey’s exclusion from buying America’s latest F-35 aircraft, NATO’s newest stealth fighter jet. The White House has said the F-35 “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Thursday any activation of the S-400 would trigger sanctions.
Ankara’s procurement of the Russian missile system violates the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA.
With the U.S. Congress calling for immediate sanctions, Pompeo’s announcement is interpreted as a gesture to Ankara, to give it time to step back.
Erdogan has further ramped up pressure on Washington, warning a major commercial contract to purchase American Boeing jets could be in peril. “I hope the U.S. will act with a good sense regarding the S-400,” he said, adding, “If things continue like this, we will have to reconsider this.”
As the threats between Turkey and the U.S. escalate, Russia this week announced an easing of visa travel with Turkey, a decision Ankara has sought.
In another Russian gesture, Alexander Mikheev, head of Russia’s official arms exporter company, Rosoboronexport, announced on Wednesday it is prepared to deepen cooperation with Turkey.
“Now we are negotiating to continue our cooperation on this issue, including the organization of license production of certain components of the system in Turkey,” he said.
Ankara is lobbying hard for technology transfer and joint production to boost its rapidly growing indigenous defense industry.
As Ankara gravitates toward Moscow, however, analysts question the sustainability of the relationship.
“Anyone who has a modicum of history or looks at a map, that Turkey and Russian relations have to have a limit, an inherent limit,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat.
Selcen points out containing Russian influence across the region was the objective of Turkish foreign policy dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Galip Dalayis a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations and research director of the Istanbul-based Middle East research group al-Sharq Forum. He says little has changed in the dynamics of Turkish-Russian relations.
“Just look to the Balkans to Caucasia, eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and Russia don’t make natural bedfellows. All the crises in the region, they have different alliances, different agendas,” said Dalay. “So in this regard, there will be a limit to Russia-Turkey relations, But this limit seems to be more flexible than expected.”
How well Russia and Turkey manage their differences can be explained by Turkey’s increasing alienation from its Western allies.
“The invisible third party in this [Turkish-Russian] relationship is the West,” said Dalay. “The quality and nature of relations with the West shaped the trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations.”
Analysts point out for decades, a critical strategic goal of Moscow has been to weaken Turkey’s ties to NATO. For Ankara, improving relations with Moscow is viewed as leverage in the myriad of differences it has with the West. Presidential advisers often talk of resurrecting the past policy of Turkey, balancing its ties with Moscow and Western countries.
Syria, however, poses the most immediate and challenging test of Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow. Turkey strongly backs rebels fighting the Russia-backed Damascus government.
The Syrian government is bombarding Idlib, the last rebel enclave. An estimated 3 million people are trapped in the pocket that borders Turkey.
“There is not much of a Turkey reaction, beyond making some noises, although we read day in, day out of killings and bombings,” said Selcen.
“Currently, Ankara blames Damascus for everything going on, but speaks to Moscow only in back channels, but not in public, but how long can this go on, I don’t know.”
Last year, a major Syrian government offensive to seize Idlib was averted by a last-minute agreement between Ankara and Moscow. Twelve Turkish military observation posts were set up in Idlib to monitor the deal; but, Damascus’ stepping up of attacks against the enclave is casting increasing doubt over the agreement’s future.
“The nightmare scenario for Turkey is Russian-backed regime forces attack Idlib. Turkish forces would be faced with a quandary. Either Turkey would have to move into Idlib to protect the people or open its border to save some of these people.”
There had been widespread speculation that Turkey’s acquisition of Russian missiles would see Moscow receiving further concessions from Syria. Damascus’ ongoing bombardment of Idlib has dashed such a scenario.
“Right now both [Turkey-Russia] sides’ displeasure with the West seems to be the bigger priority for them,” said Dalay. “So they will try to avoid, to gloss over, their differences, their incompatibility in places like Syria, But I don’t see it as sustainable.”