Skip to main content

Turkey sticks to its guns on Russian S-400s despite US sanctions

Voices are growing louder in Turkey questioning why these systems were ever purchased, considering the headaches they have caused for Ankara.
A Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter flies by a soldier during a joint Russian-Turkish patrol convoy in the eastern countryside of the town of Darbasiyah near the border with Turkey in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on December 7, 2020. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP) (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey is sticking to its guns over its controversial purchase of Russian made S-400 missile air defense systems. Increasing domestic skepticism regarding the reasons for the purchase has also not deterred Ankara, which is generally averse to political compromise.

The US sanctions slapped on Turkey Dec. 15 under the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) have merely hardened Ankara’s line.

Washington says the Russian systems threaten NATO’s state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets, which Turkey was also in line to get, and wants Ankara to ensure that the S-400s will not be activated. Turkey, however, went ahead and conducted a trial run in October in the Black Sea city of Sinop. The move crystallized bipartisan anger at Turkey in the US Congress, which pressed for the CATSAA sanctions to be imposed.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his government continue to stress that Turkey will not bow to pressure from the United States or Europe over the matter, and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has announced that retaliatory steps against Washington are in the pipeline.

Analysts say the next move to defuse the crisis will have to come from Ankara, but the possibility appears unrealistic. Some argue that the government will change tack gradually once the fallout from the sanctions begins to be felt.

For the moment Ismail Demir, who heads Turkey’s defense industry procurement agency, known briefly as SSB, is adamant that the sanctions will not deter Turkey’s rapidly developing defense industry. Citing “President Erdogan’s directives,” Demir also reiterated that there would be no backpedalling with regard to the S-400s.

Meeting a group of journalists in Ankara earlier last week Demir stressed that the CATSAA sanctions merely targeted the SSB, himself and some of the agency’s senior executives.

“The Ministry of Defense and our defense industry don’t fall within its scope,” Demir argued, but conceded that the United States may have other measures up its sleeve. “If, however, [Washington] has other intentions with regard to the implementation of these sanctions, then that is a different matter. As things stand, they have already been slowing down or obstructing various projects,” Demir said. 

He was nevertheless optimistic about the future, maintaining, “Under our president’s leadership our defense industry will come out of this even stronger.”

Foreign policy commentator Cansu Camlibel, a former Washington correspondent who covered Turkey news for Hurriyet, believes there is no room for such complacency.

Camlibel pointed out that the SSB, which is tied directly to Erdogan, is Turkey's main military procurement body.

“With this step Washington has … made dealing with the SSB a radioactive matter for countries that value their trade with the United States,” Camlibel wrote in her column for the Gazete Duvar news portal. “Even if Ankara were to act cunningly and opt for legislative changes that establish a new procurement agency in order to bypass the SSB, the psychological climate of the sanctions will force many countries to stay away from Turkey,” Camlibel argued.

In the meantime, questions continue to be raised in Turkey about the rationale behind the S-400 purchase. It is not clear to many analysts where these systems will be deployed and what their mission will be.

Political commentator Fikret Bila says that questions about why the S-400 deal went ahead and why the systems have still not been deployed and activated remain unanswered.

“The S-400 was bought over US objections, so it must have been estimated that the gains from this purchase would outweigh the losses incurred from the damage this would do to ties with the United States,” Bila wrote in the T24 news portal. “If, however, they were not needed badly, then why were the S-400 purchased in the first place? Why was $2.5 billion spent on them at a time when the country is in an economic crisis?”

Many also dispute the government’s claim that a central reason for purchasing the S-400s was the technology the Turkish defense industry would gain from the deal. Despite some muffled lip service paid to the topic, Moscow has given no indication that it is prepared to hand over sensitive electronic and technological military know-how to Turkey.

Turkey’s plans for modernizing its air force took a serious blow after it was expelled from the F-35 fighter jet program by the United States because of its purchase of the Russian air defense systems. Ankara is now scrambling for alternatives to meet its needs for modern fighter jets. As it looks to Russia and China, it could face new complications in its ties with Washington and NATO.

The bottom line is that the S-400s are rapidly becoming a liability for Turkey. Erdogan’s dilemma is that he can’t reverse the situation without losing political credibility at home and providing ammunition to the growing opposition to his government.

The S-400 question has been more of a political issue than a military one from the start.

Driven by Erdogan’s deep dislike and distrust of the West, Ankara seems to have impulsively purchased the Russian systems without weighing the consequences. 

“The S-400 has never made sense for Turkey’s military, which has its air defense integrated into NATO hardware that is incompatible with the Russian system,” Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Washington Post. “At the time he decided to go ahead with the deal, Erdogan was angry at what he perceived was U.S. support for a failed coup attempt against him in 2016,” she added.

Retired senior Turkish diplomats have also joined in the growing public debate and are proposing ways to get out of a situation that could turn into a debacle for Turkey.

In a jointly penned statement, three former ambassadors to NATO said the current impasse between Ankara and Washington “must and can be overcome with a modicum of give-and-take on both sides.” Ahmet Uzumcu, Mehmet Fatih Ceylan and Umit Pamir wrote, “The issue of the Russian-made S-400s could be satisfactorily resolved if Turkey makes a verifiable pledge within NATO not to activate the system and the U.S. takes a decision in parallel to reverse its position on the exclusion of Turkey from the F35 programme and on the recently imposed sanctions.”

The went on, “Such conciliatory moves should be complemented by a decision, backed by Alliance solidarity, to enable Turkey to reach a deal on the joint production of a missile defence system under a generous technology sharing agreement.”

While such a move appears to be the only way out of the current impasse, there are serious hurdles that must be overcome first. Turkey would have to reintegrate with the West, not just militarily but also in terms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. 

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that these considerations will be a priority for his administration.

Many are skeptical that the Erdogan government can deliver on them. Extracting Turkey from a potential S-400 debacle would ultimately require a transformed Erdogan who is less impulsive and more in tune with Ankara’s NATO allies.

Aydintasbas said he is a pragmatist who “will push back if he can but change course if he cannot get results.”

Nevertheless, the determination with which Erdogan has impulsively pushed back in the past over issues that he strongly believes in cannot be underestimated. The S-400 deal he signed with Russia despite the strong objections of Washington remains a case in point.

More from Semih Idiz

Recommended Articles