Can Erdoğan reverse course on the S-400 deal?

Three events in the last week could indicate that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seeking to forestall a rupture with the United States over his planned acquisition of Russian S-400 air defence missiles.  

Taken together, Turkey’s quiet ending of oil imports from Iran, its release from prison of NASA scientist and dual U.S.-Turkish citizen Serkan Golge, and its assertion that it has formed a joint study group with the United States to look at the S-400 issue (though refuted by the U.S. Defense Department) may indicate that Erdoğan sees the dire consequences for the economy and his political ambitions of cozying up to Russia and moving away from the West.  

But will Russian President Vladimir Putin allow Turkey’s president to escape his close embrace and return to tepid cooperation with the West?

Within Turkey, Erdoğan has shown himself the master of political life, steadily increasing his control over the country since he became prime minister in 2003. Though the opposition appeared to have won the March 31 polls to elect a new mayor of Istanbul by the thinnest of margins, Erdoğan’s ability to direct events and set the rules of the game looks largely intact. 

Even if his party loses the rerun of the Istanbul election on June 23, Erdoğan can be counted on to use his executive powers and manipulate the fractious political opposition to remain firmly in charge.

But not so in foreign policy, for here he faces stronger and equally tenacious competitors in the United States, Russia and Iran.  

The natural rivalry between Iran and Turkey precludes them from forging a political alliance of any duration. More rivals than friends in the greater Middle East, their intermittent political cooperation reflects their common antipathy towards others, not friendship toward each other.  

With Russia, Erdoğan seems to be learning that forging a partnership with Putin might not be worth the benefits, and that regardless of the rhetoric and public displays of equality, the Third Rome will always look down on those who occupy the Second Rome. Innumerable meetings between Erdoğan and Putin will not change the unequal dynamic of the relationship. 

With the United States, perhaps it is finally dawning on Erdoğan that years of anti-U.S. rhetoric, anti-American actions and discord over relations in the region have reduced the number of friends he has in Washington to a handful of national security advisors who grudgingly accept Turkey’s geostrategic importance even though they are embarrassed and disappointed by the Turkish president’s leadership. Their number pales compared to those seeking to benefit from the geostrategic value of Jordan, Cyprus, Greece and Arab states in Turkey’s place. 

All of this combines to leave Erdoğan in a precarious position. He has little to show for his rapprochement with Russia - witness the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Russian-backed forces in Idlib against the rebels that Turkey supports. If Turkey ends the deal to buy S-400 missiles, it would anger Putin, who is not likely to let it go without expressing his displeasure in ways Erdoğan would find most uncomfortable. 

Of course, Erdoğan could call on the United States and NATO to back him against Russia, but for at least two reasons those appeals might do little good. 

First, Putin is not so foolish as to retaliate against Turkey for cancelling the S-400 deal in any overt way that would call for collective defensive action from NATO. Any Russian retaliation would cause harm to Turkish interests, but be calibrated to avoid eliciting a strong response from the alliance. 

Secondly, it is hard to imagine which NATO nation would endorse expending resources to help Turkey escape the consequences of distancing itself from the bloc. Erdoğan’s anti-Western rhetoric and attacks on free speech and the rule of law have lost him sympathy among European and North American political leaders, except for a few populist nationalists like himself, but do not count on them to act on his behalf against Russian economic or political retaliation. 

Thus, only U.S. President Donald Trump can provide Erdoğan with the cover for Russian payback for cancelling the S-400 deal. But would Trump do so? That most likely depends on what more he can extract from Erdoğan and Trump is not noted for his magnanimity in negotiations when he has an advantage.  

Perhaps Erdoğan is playing for time, but to what purpose?  Whether he puts it off for weeks or months, Erdoğan will eventually have to choose between offending Putin and facing the unpleasant payback, or offending the United States and NATO and enjoying the even stronger embrace of the Russian bear as the West looks to other allies in the region.  

One should be careful about viewing the aforementioned three recent actions by Erdoğan as evidence of his desire to cancel the S-400 deal and reconcile with the U.S. Unlike the Istanbul elections, re-running foreign policy decisions takes more than a few words in the ears of government officials and unlike those officials, bears have claws.   

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.