U.S. and Turkey Escalate Feud Over Russian Missile System
Erdogan may be using the S-400 dispute with Washington to deflect attention from problems at home.
The United States and Turkey appear to be on a diplomatic collision course yet again over Ankara’s plan to buy a sophisticated Russian air defense system that U.S. and European officials see as a threat to the F-35 fighter jet.
After months of hedging, the U.S. government this week took the first concrete step to block the delivery of the stealthy fighter jets to Turkey, unless Ankara backs away from the deal with Russia, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries.
The U.S. decision to halt delivery of jets and other related equipment to Turkey—which the U.S. Defense Department confirmed Monday after Reuters first reported the news—follows repeated warnings over the issue and an American offer to sell Turkey an alternative to the S-400, the Patriot missile system, at an acceptable price.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given no indication that he will back down from the S-400 purchase and even suggested Turkey would soon seek Russia’s more advanced S-500 system.
“It’s done,” Erdogan told local television channels in March. “There can never be a turning back.”
Experts said Erdogan has backed himself into a geopolitical corner over the S-400 decision. He is seething over U.S. support for Kurdish groups in the fight against Syria and Washington’s refusal to extradite his longtime rival and the man he blames for Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, Fethullah Gulen. While Turkey’s relationship with the United States and NATO remains a linchpin of its defense posture, Erdogan wants to maintain a strong relationship with Moscow given its military footprint in Syria.
“He truly believes the U.S. is harboring the man behind the abortive coup, and he also believes Washington’s support of Kurdish fighters in Syria will damage Turkey’s internal security,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute.
“In other words, Erdogan is punishing the U.S. for doing things he views as detrimental to Turkey’s interests.”
Experts also said Erdogan has staked his political reputation on the decision, seeing the S-400 deal as a way to stoke anti-Western sentiment. Ahead of hotly contested local elections that took place on Sunday, Erdogan saw it as a way to shore up domestic political support and stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Turkey and other parts of Europe.
“The Turkish president seems to be beyond the point of no return. He is likely to exploit this bilateral crisis to fuel anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in Turkey,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and current senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
At the Pentagon on Tuesday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he did not expect the Turkish F-35s to be delivered to Ankara. He added that he was “very confident” in the U.S. proposal to sell Turkey the Patriot missile system as a capable, though likely more expensive, alternative to the S-400.
“I really think we’ll resolve this situation with our strategic partners,” Shanahan said.
A senior State Department official, speaking by phone to reporters on Tuesday, called the S-400 decision a “deeply problematic issue” but said the U.S.-Turkey relationship didn’t completely hinge on a single arms sale. “Turkey has been and remains an important NATO ally, an important partner to the United States,” the official said.
Tensions between the two NATO allies have mounted for years over U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds, Turkey’s cozy relationship with Russia, and its democratic backsliding and detention of U.S. citizens.
U.S. officials have warned that Washington could shut Turkey out of the F-35 program entirely and slap sanctions on Ankara—an unusual measure for Washington to take against a NATO ally.
“Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk,” said acting chief Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers.
U.S. officials say the integration of the S-400 with the F-35 and NATO air defenses could compromise closely guarded military secrets. The risk is that Moscow could gain valuable intelligence on the F-35’s technical systems.
“For Russia, if [the] F-35 is the poison, the S-400 is the antidote,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Co-locating these systems with the F-35 could expose the poison to the antidote, so to speak.”
The United States made the decision as the training of Turkish pilots at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona was set to wrap up, and deliveries of jets and other sensitive equipment to Turkey to support the stand-up of its F-35 fleet were planned to begin this spring. Ankara will begin receiving the S-400 in May.
The U.S. military has already begun looking for alternative suppliers to replace the Turkish companies that make certain key F-35 parts—such as landing gear components, engine blade rotors, and cockpit displays—and a new F-35 partner to host the jet’s main European engine depot, which was to be built in Turkey, officials said.
The news comes days after Turkish voters delivered a stinging political rebuke to Erdogan in local elections that saw his party lose control of major cities including the capital, Ankara, and possibly Istanbul, Erdogan’s home city.
“Erdogan’s goal seems to be creating external enemies whom he can blame for the country’s misfortunes,” including Turkey’s faltering economy, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm.
Erdogan also sees the S-400 system—which is incompatible with NATO systems—as critical for his own survival following the botched coup attempt against him in 2016, which included elements of the Turkish military. “Having witnessed how putschist pilots dominated the Turkish airspace during the 2016 failed coup attempt, Erdogan wants the S-400s first and foremost for his own security,” Erdemir said.
Moreover, Turkey remains reliant on Russia for support in Syria, where Ankara fears of a stronger Kurdish foothold in the region as the fight against the Islamic State winds down. “All of these factors have put Erdogan into such a corner that at this stage he is unable to walk away from it,” Cagaptay said.
Some wonder if Erdogan sees the F-35 as truly necessary for Turkey’s defense. While the stealthy fighter jet is very capable against Russia’s air defenses, it may be overkill for Ankara’s primary security threats: Syria and Iran. The latter, for example, flies 1970s vintage aircraft, said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.
In particular, the S-400 may give Turkey a defense against Saudi ballistic missiles, said Callan, noting that Saudi Arabia is 745 miles away—too far for the F-35 to reach without refueling.
“F-35 just isn’t that useful for Turkey unless Russia is deemed the primary threat,” Callan said.
Callan raised one more theory: Given its faltering economy, Turkey can’t afford to operate the F-35 anyway and sees the S-400 deal as a way out.
And procuring the S-400 also pushes Turkey away from exclusive reliance on the United States for critical weapon systems, Callan added.
The F-35 decision could overshadow a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Washington this week, where U.S. allies are trying to push forward a message of unity and cohesion—even as Trump has spent the past two years deriding the alliance and questioning its utility. The meeting coincides with NATO’s 70th anniversary.
“It is not simply the United States that has objected to Turkey’s purchase of this system. It is something other NATO allies have expressed concern about,” said Amanda Sloat, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman