Is coronavirus good for health of Turkish-US relations?

The coronavirus could offer Recep Tayyip Erdogan an opportunity to defer a fresh crisis with Washington over the Russian S-400 air defense systems, which he had pledged to activate in April but whose cost has now grown on multiple fronts.

al-monitor The first batch of S-400 missile defense systems arrives at Murted Air Base in Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019.  Photo by Turkeys National Defense Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

avr. 14, 2020

Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, a top issue on Turkey’s agenda in April would have been the planned activation of the S-400 air defense systems that NATO member Turkey purchased from Russia.

Soon after delivery of the systems began in July 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set April 2020 as the time that the S-400s would become operational. He confirmed that timetable as recently as March 5 after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in which the two leaders sealed a cease-fire deal in Idlib. “The S-400s are now our property. All parts have arrived, and [the systems] will become operational in April,” he told journalists accompanying him on the flight back home.

Despite such declarations of resolve at the highest level, the issue of the S-400 activation appeared completely off the agenda of the Erdogan government and its media as of April 14. Neither Erdogan nor other government officials have uttered a word on the matter since the beginning of the month. The pro-government media has neither reported nor asked questions about the activation plan, and none of its columnists has pondered the reasons for the silence. It looks as if the S-400s, which reportedly cost Turkey more than $2 billion, have been condemned to oblivion.

What could be behind this abrupt silence and inaction on a strategically significant issue that bears closely on Turkey’s place in the world and regional geopolitics?

The first reason that comes to mind is the worsening impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Turkish economy, which is already on crisis footing since the sharp depreciation of the Turkish lira in 2018. The government could be responding rationally to the economic downturn, opting to avoid unnecessary geopolitical tensions on top of it.

Short-term forecasts for the Turkish economy are far from optimistic, indeed. According to an April 8 report by the World Bank, updating the economic outlook of Europe and Central Asia after the coronavirus outbreak, a worsening of the pandemic and ongoing geopolitical tensions pose “great risks” to the Turkish economy. The report projects a slump in Turkey’s export and tourism revenues, increased hardship in access to financing, fresh exchange rate pressures and a deteriorating current account deficit, in addition to surging inflation. The World Bank forecasts the Turkish economy to grow only 0.5% in 2020, over 3 percentage points less than the pre-pandemic estimate, warning that “a more negative outturn is equally probable given uncertainties.”

In a sign of how severe its financial troubles are, reports say Ankara has approached the United States and other G-20 nations to get included in currency swap agreements as it faces a critical drop in foreign reserves under the added impact of the global pandemic.

With Turkey in such dire straits, activating the S-400 systems and fanning fresh geopolitical tensions with the Western alliance would hardly help Erdogan’s quest to secure funds from the West.

Moreover, activation of the systems is likely to obliterate the appreciation that Turkey has recently won in Washington, particularly in Congress, with its war performance in Idlib against the Russian-backed Syrian government and its allies. By standing its ground in Idlib, Turkey has increased the cost of the war for Russia, which, in turn, has somewhat softened the long-running, anti-Turkey predisposition in Congress, where the Syrian conflict is viewed from the lens of big-power rivalry.

Also, it is worth recalling that the National Defense Authorization Act adopted by Congress and approved by President Donald Trump in December 2019, before the war in Idlib, made Turkey a potential target of US sanctions again over its purchase of the S-400 systems. A section of the act, called “Limitation on transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey,” underlines that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s constitutes a “significant transaction” with Russia under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and calls on the president to implement the relevant sanctions.

Under the National Defense Authorization Act, Turkey is not entitled to sanction waivers as long as it keeps the S-400s, even if it does not activate them. The weapons’ removal from Turkish territory is set as a precondition to evade sanctions.

A fresh US warning on the issue came from US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison ahead of the April 1 meeting of NATO foreign ministers. Referring to the conflict in Idlib, she told reporters, “We hope that the Turks, because they’re being the victims of Russian-Syrian aggression, will take out the [Russian] missile defense system that is in the middle of Ankara and let us have the freedom to help them completely to protect those innocent civilians in Syria.”

The key element of the potential help the ambassador mentioned is the deployment of US Patriot batteries to Turkey.

Activating the S-400s under the current circumstances would risk dispelling the positive mood the Idlib war has created vis-a-vis Turkey in Washington, especially in Congress, and revive the penchant to punish Ankara.

So, it is fair to ask whether activating the S-400 systems and thus complicating Ankara’s efforts to secure foreign funds would be a wise move at a time when the Turkish economy is contracting and inflation, unemployment and poverty are on the rise under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

With April already half gone, the deafening silence of the government and its media on the S-400s might be speaking of a tacit decision against activating the Russian systems, now that things hang in a knife-edge balance for Turkey.

Still, it would be premature to conclude that Ankara will absolutely refrain from activating the systems as long as the current circumstances persist, given that all power and authority in Turkey are now concentrated in single hands, which makes decision-making a highly personalized affair.

Nevertheless, clear answers could still be provided to some questions by skirting the uncertainty stemming from the unchecked power in the hands of one man.

One such question, for instance, is this: Turkey’s necessity for a high-altitude air defense system aside, are the reasons that led Erdogan to buy the Russian systems still valid today?

It is a pertinent question because rather personal reasons pushed Erdogan to go for the Russian option. He made the decision in the immediate wake of the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The negotiations on the S-400 deal began soon after Erdogan, accompanied by a large delegation, traveled to St. Petersburg on Aug. 9, less than a month after the putsch, to meet with Putin. The two sides signed the first contract in April 2017.

The key factor leading Erdogan to opt for the Russian systems was his conclusive conviction that the United States was behind the coup attempt and therefore his perception of a direct threat from the United States. The S-400 acquisition was the embodiment of his search for security and assurance from Russia.

The S-400 may be a strategic weapon, but Erdogan’s decision was not strategic. Rather, it was impulsive. No reason was good enough to dissuade him from going ahead — neither the fact that the S-400s cannot be integrated into the NATO air defense architecture nor the $12 billion that Turkey’s defense industry would instantly lose from being sidelined from the co-production of the fifth-generation F-35 warplane nor the deterrence loss the Turkish air force would suffer without having the F-35s.

Nearly four years after the coup attempt, amid the conflict in Idlib, he must have finally realized that Russia cannot give him the security and assurance he was hoping for.

Turkey’s need for a high-altitude air defense system remains unchanged, but now, the reasons to not activate the S-400s have come to outweigh those that call for activation. The pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn have so narrowed Turkey’s wiggle room in the Russia-US equilibrium that there is not enough space to deploy the S-400s.

For sticky situations like this, there is a Turkish saying that one is left with a burden that one “can neither throw away nor sell.” That’s the situation with the S-400s today — Turkey “can neither throw them away nor sell them,” although they have become “our property” now, as Erdogan says. It is a “property” that has grown into a heavy burden because none of the factors leading to this outcome were taken into account at the time of the purchase.

The only rational option for Turkey now is to maintain the status quo as much as it can — that is, to not activate the S-400 systems while not selling or not throwing them away. Rational options, however, can be appraised only by rational decision-makers.

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