Turkey’s New S-400s Thin the Ice
Note: This article's original publication was September 2, 2019.
Turkey has a new best friend, recently indicated by its July purchase of S-400 ground missile
defense systems from Russia. This $2.5 billion military expenditure clearly signifies Turkey’s
increasingly anti-West orientation, a shift that has not gone unnoticed by the US as well as
NATO. Turkish President Erdoğan’s decision, which he claims cannot be reversed by the US or
NATO allies, has further disturbed his nation’s deteriorating relationship with the US.
The purchase from Turkey’s now-closest ally has significant strategic and economic effects for the
US, which has responded in a way that calls into question the future of these states’ relationship.
Strategically, the deployment of the systems reduces space for US influence in the surrounding
region. The US has used Turkey’s territory for strategic means since shortly after the Second
World War; American missile bases there served as a deterrent to the Soviet Union during the
Cold War, but also led to retaliation in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although the US agreed to retract its strategically-placed missiles in 1962, it still uses Turkey’s territory in a strategic manner. For example, the Incirlik Air Base, hosting both US and Turkish airmen in the nation’s southeastern corridor, has easy and quick access to key middle eastern states such as Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Continued use of these bases is one of a shrinking number of reasons the US upholds its formal relationship with Turkey. However, new Russian weapons, which have greater ranges and speeds than their American counterparts, in strategic bases such as Incirlik can dominate US power and rid the US of strategic and influential military locations. President Trump as well as leading members of both parties of Congress have acknowledged the severity of this problem, especially as tensions rise between middle eastern and NATO states.
Turkey’s S-400 purchase also has economic consequences for the US. The most significant of
these stems from US retaliation in the form of sanctions and similar measures. For example, the
US has formally removed Turkey from the F-35 stealth jet fighter program, despite Ankara’s
order of 100 F-35As. Although this measure was taken in response to the security threat, the US
will be losing around half a billion dollars and thus funding for future R&D within the program.
Another economic ramification involves the growing market share of the Russian S-400, which,
as proven in theory but not yet practice, outperforms the system’s US counterpart, the Patriot.
According to Globalsecurity.org, Turkey’s new weapon has a higher target flight altitude,
quantity of targets it can track, target speed, radar detection, and range. This Russian alternative
may become more appealing to non-NATO states, costing the Patriot its market share. Clearly,
the consequences of Turkey’s purchase are more than military and strategic.
Moreover, Turkey’s purchase has put its NATO membership into question, more than it already
has with other controversial political moves, such as its rigged 2018 election and unjust
imprisonment of thousand of journalists after the failed 2016 coup. Ever since the election of
Putin in 2012, Russia has been notoriously anti-NATO and, more generally, anti-West; if one
reason stands out among the proposed many, it is that Russia sees Western liberal, secular
society as an encroachment on their more conservative values and lifestyle. The purchase of
weapons from a state with this kind of orientation demonstrates a congruent view on Turkey’s
part. Although NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has clarified that Turkey can make its
own weapons decisions, individual states within the alliance are not pleased with Turkey’s increasingly pro-Russia alignment. Members that station forces on bases such as Incirlik, one
example being Britain, consider the Russian system a security threat. While members protest the
purchase, permanently suspending Turkey from the alliance, whose since-declining pro-Western
values allowed the nation membership shortly after NATO’s founding, is not an option, as it
contributes the second-largest military within the alliance with its forces highly integrated into
Because NATO as a unit cannot take action against Turkey, the majority of the US Congress is
determined to impose sanctions on the nation. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries
Through Sanctions Act, signed by President Trump in 2017, the executive is obligated to
sanction any state that engages in major arms deals with Russia. Many GOP legislatures have
invoked the name of the Act in this situation as suitable retribution. However, Trump desires to
take a broader approach through diplomacy in an effort to return Turkey to being a strategic ally.
Although the US has not fully responded to the perceived security threat of Turkey’s purchase of
Russian anti-aircraft systems, the acquisition has certainly put the nation on thin ice with the US
as well as NATO. So a question arises: why does Turkey maintain its formal relations with the
US and NATO if recent actions have demonstrated anything but a commitment to these
relationships? A likely answer can be found by looking at the nation through a domestic political
lens; while President Erdoğan is pushing his government in an authoritarian direction with the
unjust imprisonment of thousands and unilateral detrimental interest rate manipulation (see the
author’s November 2018 piece for more on this), he believes Turkey’s relationship with the US
and its NATO membership afford the nation more power and stability in the international game
marked by selfishness and self-help. What the purchase has revealed for certain, however, is a
greater alertness from the US and NATO of growing anti-West sentiments from a nation that was
once a strong ally to both.