Until Turkey received the first shipments of the S-400 air defense systems earlier this month, many believed that its deal to buy the Russian-made military hardware was merely a tactic to negotiate better terms on its potential purchase of the U.S-made Patriot system. It’s clear that that wasn’t the case. Now that Turkey has been expelled from the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program, many are asking why Turkey would compromise its access to the modern warplane in exchange for the S-400 when the U.S. had already offered to sell Ankara the Patriot system.
For Turkey, the S-400 purchase was not just about acquiring a defense system; it was about building up its own capabilities. Since the early 1980s, Turkey has been trying to develop its own military industry, an undertaking which requires technology transfer agreements that often come with weapons purchases to learn how to develop similar systems domestically. And although the U.S. was willing to sell Turkey its Patriot system, it wasn’t willing to give tech transfer rights as part of the deal. As for the timing, Turkey signed the S-400 agreement with Russia before the U.S. passed the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which could expose Turkey to secondary sanctions because of its purchase of Russian defense products. And the U.S. threatened to remove Turkey from the F-35 program only after Turkey had already agreed to acquire the S-400. Some have also speculated that Turkey went through with the deal to appease the Russians after it shot down a Russian jet near the Syria-Turkey border in 2015. A month before the incident, the U.S. and Germany pulled their own missile defense systems from Turkey, which Ankara likely perceived as a disregard from its NATO allies about the threats Turkey was facing at the time.
The more critical question, however, is why would Turkey risk its place in NATO – an alliance that has shielded it from its long-standing adversary, Russia – to buy a weapons system for which alternatives exist? And why would the U.S. let an important ally purchase a defense system that could compromise its expensive F-35 fighter jet program and jeopardize the NATO alliance? It seems borderline reckless for the U.S. to risk losing a close ally over tech transfer rights and a few billion dollars. The answer comes down to Turkey’s increasing willingness to pursue its own interests, even at the expense of its NATO allies.
Going It Alone
Over the past several years, relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been tense. The U.S. support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish rebel group supported by the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, has enraged Turkey, which views the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The U.S., however, began supporting the SDF only after Turkey declined to intervene in the Syrian civil war and fight the Islamic State. In fact, Turkey even neglected its border for years to allow IS recruits to cross into Syria and place greater pressure on Bashar Assad.
U.S. tariffs on Turkish steel – which were initially double the rate of similar duties placed on other countries but later lowered to 25 percent – were another major issue. In addition, in response to Turkey’s jailing of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, the U.S. imposed sanctions on two Turkish government officials last August, which contributed to the decline of the already struggling Turkish lira. (The U.S. lifted the sanctions in November after the pastor was released.)
One of the most critical disputes between Ankara and Washington has been over Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey has accused of being behind a failed coup attempt in 2016. Because the U.S. has repeatedly refused Turkey’s extradition requests, Turkey has suggested that the U.S. may have also played a role in the coup. Either way, Washington has certainly impeded Turkish efforts to dismantle the Gulen network. Add to all this the U.S. criticism of Turkey’s ongoing natural gas exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and a broader picture begins to emerge: Neither Turkey nor the U.S. is acting in the other’s interests, and Ankara may see more benefits in going it alone than in sticking by Washington’s side.
Toward an Independent Foreign Policy
The S-400 purchase, then, should be seen less as a breaking point and more as a marker in a trajectory leading to a critical goal for Ankara: an independent Turkish foreign policy. Arguably, this long-term goal emerged after Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, after which the U.S. imposed an arms embargo on Turkey. At the time, however, Turkey was a key NATO ally, forming one of the southern links in the Soviet containment line. Starting in the early 1980s, Turkey began a more concerted effort to develop a domestic military inventory so that it could stop depending on foreign arms imports.
The S-400, therefore, is part of a broader strategy to diversify Turkey’s arms supply – and not an indicator of a budding strategic alliance between Ankara and Moscow. Still, it’s true that Turkey has been increasing cooperation with Russia, with which it has a long history of conflict. Trade between the two countries has been growing, and Turkey counts Russia as its largest supplier of natural gas. It has also essentially legitimized Russia’s presence in Syria by repeatedly sitting down for peace talks that include Moscow.
Ankara and Moscow, however, aren’t exactly friends. It wasn’t too long ago that Turkey shot down a Russian jet that crossed into its territory. And the two countries still support opposing sides in what is essentially a proxy conflict in northwest Syria – Russia backs Assad while Turkey supports anti-Assad rebels. Some observers have even speculated that Turkey followed through on the S-400 deal only because Russia threatened to let Assad unleash a massive offensive on Idlib that would have driven at least tens of thousands of refugees into Turkey. With nearly 4 million Syrian refugees already living in the country, Ankara’s resources are stretched thin. It doesn’t want to take in any more.
The S-400 dispute could also have implications for Turkey’s relationship with NATO. Understanding those implications requires understanding why it joined NATO in the first place. It was always Turkey’s fear of Russia that drove it to the alliance. It needed support from a superpower to fend off its long-time adversary – an adversary that emerged from World War II more powerful than ever. Today, however, Russia is a shadow of its former self. It’s bogged down in Ukraine and facing severe economic challenges, and President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings continue to fall. It has bigger problems to deal with than Turkey. In fact, it has been careful to avoid confrontation with Turkish forces in Syria. Russia’s relative weakness has thus given Turkey more freedom to act independently of its anti-Russia allies. (It should be noted, however, that Russia still spends roughly $50 billion more on defense than Turkey.) Being able to pursue an independent foreign policy without risking Russian retribution has allowed Ankara to distance itself from an alliance that has protected it from Russia for decades.
The last thing to consider are the political factors at play. Both sides, but especially the U.S., have handled this deal in a way that has backed Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a corner, making it extremely difficult for him to back down without losing face at a time when his party’s grip on power is already slipping (as we saw in June’s Istanbul mayoral election). It may just be a result of the Trump administration’s business-like negotiating style. Perhaps the S-400 dispute could have been resolved through more traditional diplomatic channels if the State Department wasn’t understaffed for much of this administration’s tenure. Still, this wouldn’t have changed the long-term trajectory. Regardless of who’s in the White House, Ankara would still be trying to carve out an independent foreign policy now more than ever.