Ilhan Tanir | Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers U.S. politics and U.S.-Turkish relations for Turkish national newspapers and online publications, senior editor at the Ahval news site since 2017
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants Russian S-400s primarily as an air defense system against hostile aircraft. The system, it is said, will be deployed around Ankara. The last time that fighters caused a problem for Erdoğan was on the night of the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. His presidential jet transported him from Marmaris, a coastal resort where he was vacationing, to Istanbul. His jet was reportedly threatened by F-16s controlled by the coup plotters, while other jets bombed near Erdoğan’s palace, killing scores of his supporters. Erdoğan complained that the West did not come to his aid that night, and his close allies, officials, and supportive media called the coup a U.S. or NATO operation.
The United States, as the most important party in NATO, has already threatened Turkey with “grave consequences” if it goes ahead with the S-400 purchase. The U.S. Congress can be expected to impose harsh measures, including permanently banning the transfer of the new F-35 stealth fighter to Turkey. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act will also be triggered. Since NATO’s founding no member has left the alliance. However, there is a first time for everything. The reported price of the S-400 is $2.5 billion for Turkey. However, the system’s real cost could end up being much higher, including a Turkish exit from NATO.
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, Brussels
The controversy around Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia is boiling over. With Ankara and Moscow having confirmed the delivery in 2019, while Washington talks again of serious consequences if this were to happen, the war of words could easily become a major crisis.
The bottom line is simple: With an operational S-400 system at the heart of Turkey’s air defense architecture, the entire NATO inventory of F-16s and F-35s would be put in jeopardy since Russia would be able to “read” their performance from a Russian system. This is a no-go for the United States and NATO, as there is no way to “insulate” Turkey’s military aircraft from the S-400 radars.
Forget Turkey’s proclaimed “freedom of choice” for military procurement, or its claim (denied by Moscow) that Russia will transfer missile technology. What matters politically is that if Russia deploys a top of the line radar system with associated Russian personnel at the heart of Turkey’s air force and air defense network, it will completely undermine NATO’s trust in Ankara’s reliability in case of a military crisis. This would be a major achievement for Russia, but it would imply deep changes in NATO’s air defense policy.
Soner Cagaptay | Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey (I.B. Tauris, 2017)
I don’t think that the NATO alliance will necessarily present a united front in response to Turkey’s purchase of S-400s. Already a number of NATO countries, such as Hungary, are pro-Russian. Add to this Italy, which is led by a populist, Russia-leaning government. What is more, the broader European family within the NATO alliance is not completely aligned with the United States at the moment due to the interplay between Washington politics and trans-Atlantic dynamics. Hence, I do not expect that all European members of NATO will back Washington in pushing back against Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian air defense system. This would be quite unlike the united front that NATO presented in 2013, when Turkey said it would consider buying a Chinese-made missile defense system.
That being said, Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 could have a devastating impact on the bilateral U.S.-Turkish relationship. It’s almost certain that Washington would impose sanctions on Ankara should Turkey go ahead with the decision. In this regard, I believe the White House has drawn a lesson from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Because the Trump administration pretty much let Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman off hook for that crime, Congress has taken steps that have effectively undermined the basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. To prevent a similar eventuality, the White House will be hard-pressed to slap heavy sanctions on Ankara. On top of that, Congress might impose sanctions of its own against Turkey.
I’m generally considered mildly optimistic when it comes to the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. This time I am cautiously pessimistic.
Galip Dalay | Visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha Center
Discussion of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia is no longer confined to the defense industry. Rather, the purchase is seen as reflecting Turkey’s new geopolitical choices. To be more precise, Turkey wants to keep discussion solely on its defense and security needs; in contrast, the United States views the purchase through Turkey’s new geopolitical alignment, irrespective of whether this alignment is real or not. To counter this, Turkey is striving to make sure the purchase is not seen as indicating a preference for deepening ties with Russia at the expense of its historical and institutional ties to NATO and the West in general. But that is exactly how the United States and NATO interprets the Turkish decision.
Recent remarks by General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s supreme allied commander and commander of the U.S. European Command, in which he said that Turkey could not have both the S-400 and the U.S.-built F-35 stealth fighter shed light on the mood in NATO circles. It wasn’t only the message, but the identity of the messenger, that gave the statement added importance.
Despite repeated pleas and warnings from the West, Turkey is unlikely to backtrack on its purchase. Doing so would negatively affect Turkish-Russian relations, particularly in Syria. We are heading toward another major crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, which is likely to manifest itself on multiple fronts.
First, the immediate repercussions will be felt in security and defense cooperation between Turkey and NATO. Second, the crisis will have geopolitical consequences. The distance between Turkey and the United States will widen in some major crisis areas, such as northeastern Syria. Cooperation and coordination will likely prove even trickier. Third, Washington is likely to impose sanctions on Turkey’s financial and defense industries, including blocking the delivery of the F-35 to Turkey. This, in turn, will invite further discussions in Turkey and outside about Turkey’s geopolitical identity and orientation. And all this will take place at a time when previous assumptions about NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance are being challenged by both the members of the alliance themselves and by NATO’s foes.