In light of the history of US-Turkey relations, it might not be very difficult to decipher the crux of the developing differences between the United States and Turkey, and to understand the rationale behind the actions and intentions of the two countries.
The ongoing tension between the two NATO allies, the United States and Turkey, recently took a pivotal course when Turkey received its first shipment of “the Russian S-400 air defense system”, its parts and components, in Ankara, at the Murted military airbase on Friday, 12 July. Subsequently, the United States reportedly put forward plans to penalize Turkey for its purchase of a Russian air defense system. Before the actual delivery, Turkey was already being warned that it “could face possible sanctions and a block on its participation in the US-made F-35 fighter jet programme because of the Russian deal.” On Wednesday, 17 July, the United States officially cancelled the delivery and sale of the F-35 aircrafts to Turkey. According to The New York Times, “The White House informed Turkey on Wednesday that would not sell F-35 stealth fighter jets to its NATO ally, in retaliation of the country’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.”
A country’s actions and its relationship with other countries could be a demonstration of an interrelated and a convoluted web of several national and international experiences and developments. Hence, it might be interesting to observe how countries could be viewing and handling different issues in a variety of ways according to their economic, political, and social backdrop. Perhaps, the recent break in relations between the United States and Turkey could be analysed in a similar way. There is no doubt that disagreement continues to dog US-Turkey relations owing to the delivery of the Russian S-400 system to Ankara. The other side of the coin is that Trump is inherently against the NATO alliance and does not wish that the US should disproportionately bankroll the historic alliance which Turkish leaders cleverly joined in 1952.
The United States’ reaction towards Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system could be succinctly summarised as actions taken to counter the threats and dangers associated with the system. Objections over the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey could be well-reasoned given the damage it could bring to the F-35 aircraft. Furthermore, concern over the belief that the system could also be used to gather critical information on the aircraft seems be a valid one. “The Russian system could be used to collect intelligence on the stealth capabilities of the U.S. F-35 fighter jet that Turkey is buying and has helped to build.”
This illustrates how the S-400 system might lead to the emergence of threating and dangerous platforms and avenues. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyib Endrogan’s move towards the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin is arousing agitation too. This could be because Turkey is a NATO member of crucial importance and it is developing ties with a country “whose authoritarian leader seeks to undermine NATO and US interests at every turn.” Hence, with the idea that the purchase of the S-400 system could have many gloomy repercussions, the scope of objections and concerns associated with it could be worrying.
Turkey’s actions and stance in relation to the “F-35 fighter jets” and the S-400 system could be a product of its need to possess an advanced air defense system, a deep sense to comply with the agreement reached with Russia, an effort to cultivate new ties with other countries, and its desire to be a part of the fighter jet programme and to purchase the defense system simultaneously. One could recognise Turkey’s actions as logical and reasonable to some extent based on several grounds. Turkey wanted “an advanced air defense system and was forced to buy it from Russia because NATO allies, including the U.S., failed to meet its defensive needs on Turkish terms.” Similarly, Turkey’s assertion that the deal with Russia was planned, legally processed, and agreed upon could also help demonstrate why Turkey has been so uncompromising over dropping the idea of purchasing a Russian air defense system.
Moreover, some parts of the “F-35 fighter jets” are made in Turkey. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu said that “Turkey is also a partner in the F-35 project. Some parts are being made in here in Turkey. Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in this regard.” This could illustrate Turkey’s inclination towards being an active member of the F-35 fighter jet programme, as well as, its desire to purchase the S-400 system. However, the United States’ approach towards this particular matter that “Turkey can’t have both the F-35 and the Russian missile system has not changed.”
Hence, Turkey’s set of reasons for purchasing a Russian air defense system could be related to its concern over Turkey’s inadequate air defense system, its desire to adhere to the settled deal, and an inclination for both, the F-35 project and the S-400 system.
Insecurity, anxiety, uncertainty, and security concerns are some of the inherent characteristics of the global political arena today. Perhaps, the fact that the S-400 system “is one of Russia’s most advanced antiaircraft weapons” could have played an integral in the United States officially cancelling the “sale of fighter jets to Turkey.” Based on the advanced intelligence capabilities that the S-400 system is expected to possess, there could be significant negative repercussions associated with the F-35 project and the S-400 system existing at the same time and in the same place.
Moreover, an agreement with Russia could be a manifestation of a NATO ally attempting to weaken “the commitments all NATO allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems.”
Similarly, Turkey’s unbending position over the purchase of the S-400 system despite multiple offers could depict Turkey’s firm resolution to acquire an advanced air defense system for Turkey. The recent break in relations between the two NATO allies because of the ongoing crisis over the S-400 system has several areas of analyses and could be approached in multiple ways.
The author, Samrah Alam, is a research intern at the PIIA. She is pursuing her masters degree at NYU in Global Affairs.