Turkey’s Impending Missile Delivery Aggravates Tensions with the United States

Although Turkey purchased a sophisticated Russian air defense system in 2017, it is only now–three months before the missiles are scheduled for delivery–that the brewing disagreement between itself and the US is coming to a boil.

The United States is threatening economic sanctions if Turkey does not pull out of their current deal with Russia, where Turkey has paid $2.5 billion for two S-400 missile systems that come with their own radar, command center, and eight missile launchers. Known as the Russian answer to US Patriot missiles, the S-400 is capable of protection against ballistic missiles and can target stealth warplanes like the F-35 used by NATO allies. As part of the deal, Russia has also agreed to joint production of the missile system and technology transfer.

Turkey claims these weapons are needed to counter regional threats and can be made compatible with systems used by NATO by redesigning the software. NATO officials, however, warn that Turkey will not be allowed to connect their new missiles into NATO defense infrastructure; integrating the S-400s into NATO’s early warning system could compromise the entire system by enabling Russia to spy on the F-35s.

Turkey resoundingly disagrees with claims of this conflict between Turkey’s NATO commitments and their purchase of Russian missiles. They have countered by accusing the US of politicizing this issue in response growing strife between the US and Turkey. The relationship between the two countries has deteriorated after a series of escalating disputes including Turkey’s outlandish 2016 arrest of a preacher accused of instigating a failed coup, the US conviction of a Turkish banker on Iran sanctions violations charges, and most importantly, divisions over the Syrian civil war, where the US supports the Kurdish YPG militia that Turkey views as a terrorist group.

In an attempt to block Turkey from fulfilling their purchase of the Russian F-400s, the US offered Turkey a package of 140 Patriot missile defense systems for $3.5 billion, but only if Turkey cancels their deal with Russia. Turkey rejected this proposition, however, saying they might consider buying the Patriots but not at the expense of the S-400s. Additional negotiation concerns emerged after Turkey refused to enter a deal for Patriot missiles unless the US shared its technology; Turkish President Erdogan emphasized that his country “will not go into a deal if [the United States] insists on keeping the ‘key’ to the system”. US officials have said the formal offer expires at the end of this month.

The United States has threatened to expel Turkey from the F-35 development program, which Turkey has been a part of since 2002. Turkish companies have played a key industrial role in developing the next generation of F-35s, 100 of which Turkey is set to obtain this fall as part of the F-35 program. This is particularly messy because the US would need to return almost $1 billion of Turkish investments and replace Turkish manufacturers, which would cause up to a two-year delay in deliveries to US allies. However, Heidi Grant, the new head of Defense Technology Security Administration, has said that there will be no devastating impact on the F-35 program if Turkey is no longer a partner.

The US has also threatened sanctions under a law called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that targets transactions with Russian defense and intelligence sectors. The value of Turkey’s currency, the lira, reached record lows this summer after diplomatic disputes between the US and Turkey; after recovering over the past several months, the lira’s value has steadily dropped the last seven weeks. Market analysts believe a showdown between the US and Turkey over the S-400s will be even more detrimental to Turkey’s economy.

Despite the innumerable consequences of fulfilling their deal with Russia, Turkey is unlikely to back out. Reneging on their deal will have disastrous consequences on their relationship with Russia, particularly in relation to Syria. Russia is an increasingly powerful regional force, and is building a nuclear power plant in Turkey and a gas export pipeline that stretches across Turkish territory to Europe.

Some analysts believe Turkey may attempt to sidestep the crisis by offering to keep the S-400s in storage or by reselling them to another country, but this is unlikely to diffuse the situation because the US opposes the system’s purchase–not just its deployment. The United States, on the other hand, may exert additional pressure on the Turkish government ahead of the March 31st elections. Either way, it is clear that by purchasing the S-400 missiles, Turkey has fundamentally changed its relationship with the US and NATO forces.


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