Turkey’s defiance of the U.S. over its Russian defence deal is an instance of the strains in strategic ties between the two NATO allies. It is equally a reflection of the proximate relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since their entanglement in the Syrian conflict.
In 2017, Ankara and Moscow reached an agreement on Turkey’s installation of the S-400 defence system , the anti-aircraft weapon that launches surface-to-air missiles. The sophisticated radars it relies on are believed to compromise the secrecy of the U.S.’s F-35 stealth fighter jet programme that many NATO member states, including Turkey, have signed on to acquire. Ankara’s move has thus prompted a multi-pronged response from Washington to wean away NATO’s eastern ally, which is critical in the counter-terrorism efforts in Syria and to stem the flow of refugees into Europe.
The U.S. has threatened to eject Turkey from the F-35 aircraft programme and impose more sanctions. Last year, the State Department approved the supply of the Patriot air defence system to discourage Turkey from the S-400 acquisition. The Patriots are separate from similar NATO installations in the southeast of Turkey earlier in the decade, during the onset of the Syrian civil war. At that time, NATO was at pains to emphasise that the Patriot missiles were meant to defend Turkey, rather than be used to target Syria. That clarification was meant to assuage Russian concerns that the U.S. was escalating the Syrian conflict.
But this year, the U.S. and Turkey, and NATO by implication, are divided over the Syrian Kurdish militia — the People’s Protection Units (YPG). A key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic state, the YPG is seen by Turkey as an extension of the country’s decades-old insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Moreover, Ankara’s invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin last year and its overall intervention in Syria enjoys broad Russian backing.
Further, the West’s persistent attacks on the Turkish regime’s human rights record has hardened Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian stand. U.S. President Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy approach has helped Mr. Erdogan expand his regional influence.
It thus stands to reason that Turkey should be reluctant to abandon the Russian S-400 deal, and see no grounds to reject the latest Patriot missile offer. If anything, government officials in Turkey sound optimistic that President Trump will intervene to secure the waiver of sanctions arising from the Russian deal. Turkey’s Foreign Minister asserted before NATO’s 70th anniversary gathering in April that his country valued the security it enjoyed remaining within the military umbrella. Yet, he was equally categorical on the importance of Russian cooperation.
Garimella Subramaniam is Deputy Editor, The Hindu