Turkey inches across Rubicon with S-400 purchase

The Pentagon has told Ankara it still has time to reverse course on its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems before it is ejected from the F-35 programme, but with just weeks before delivery of the systems is due, experts warn that Turkey has already crossed the Rubicon on its relations with its western partners.

Turkey can still prevent its suspension from the F-35 programme if it reverses its decision to buy Russian missile systems, but the Pentagon is now working toward a very disciplined and graceful wind-down of Turkey's participation in the program, said Ellen Lord, the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment on Friday.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Thursday detailing how Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program will be all but suspended as of July 31 unless Turkey withdraws from its planned purchase of Russian S-400 defence systems.

It was, former EU diplomat and Carnegie scholar Marc Pierini tweeted, a “watershed moment” in a saga that has simmered along since Turkey and Russia signed the S-400 deal in December 2017.

“This is most escalation we have seen so far from US on Turkey regarding Russian S-400,” said Joyce Karam, the Washington correspondent for Emirati newspaper the National.

“The Pentagon letter marks the futility of Turkish efforts to acquire and deploy both weapons,” Serhat Güvenç, a political scientist at Istanbul Kadir Has University, told Ahval. “The S-400 seems to have a stronger support in defence acquisition circles in Ankara than the F-35. For its supporters, the S-400 may well serve as the proverbial leverage to shift Turkey’s axis away from the Western security community.”

Turkey faced a similar dilemma in 2010, when it was the only NATO state to oppose the alliance’s new ballistic missile defence system, devised to tackle a potential threat from Iran. While Turkey eventually relented and chose NATO over Iran, the incident was an early indication of how Ankara’s strategic priorities were diverging from its allies, Güvenç said.

The academic added that the disagreement over the S-400s mirrored the “make or break” decision Turkey faced in 2010 regarding relations with its NATO allies, but “this time the Rubicon has already been crossed.”

Despite analysts' opinions that the letter sent by Shanahan marked a critical juncture for the relations of two NATO allies, Turkey’s Ministry of Defence said in a written statement on Saturday that the letter showed that the United States expected to find a solution to existing problems within the framework of strategic partnership and maintain comprehensive security cooperation.

Reuters reported on Thursday that the United States would not accept more Turkish pilots for training on F-35 fighter jets because of the escalating tensions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian systems, which according to Washington could collect data on NATO military operations and undermine their defences. 

Turkey will not participate in the annual F-35 Chief Executive Officer Roundtable on June 12, and planned updates to the program's governing documents will proceed without Turkey's participation, Lord told reporters.

If Washington and Ankara cannot reach a mutually-agreeable resolution by July 31, all Turkish F-35 students and instructor pilots currently in the United States will be required to depart the country, Lord said.

“Cooperative project personnel at the F-35 Joint Program Office will be reassigned no later than July 31.  At this point, all invitational travel orders will be canceled, and Turkish Air Force personnel will be prohibited from entering JPO facilities,” Lord said.

In April, the United States froze a joint F-35 manufacturing program with Turkey, which produces 6-7 percent of the parts for the fighter jets.

“Turkey will receive no new workshare in the F-35 program.  Its current workshare will be transitioned to alternate sources as they are qualified and come to rate production,” Lord said, adding that the process will be greatly accelerated if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400 prior to July 31.

Lord said that the Pentagon’s actions were separate from any congressionally-mandated, Russia-related sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. 

Shanahan’s letter, however, touched on the “strong bipartisan U.S. Congressional determination” to see the sanctions through, and warned that achieving an increase in trade volume to the targeted $75 billion “may be challenging if the United States imposes CAATSA sanctions.”

“Let me reiterate: Turkey still has the option to change course.  If Turkey does not accept delivery of the S-400, we will enable Turkey to return to normal F-35 program activities,” Lord said.

Lord said the measures were related only to Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 systems, adding that bilateral, multilateral exercises would continue. 

Turkish officials have repeatedly said that Ankara would not renege on plans to acquire Russian systems according to a $2.5 billion contract signed with Moscow in 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday that it was out of the question for Turkey to take a step back from the deal.

“From hindsight, it is tempting to conclude that Erdogan has never considered backing out of the missile deal with Russia but instead had hoped to convince his U.S. counterpart that these two systems may co-exist in Turkey and within the alliance,” analyst Güvenç told Ahval.

“I think the fact that Minister Akar continues to come and meet with us, continues to have phone calls with us, continues to send letters back and forth shows that there's a desire to find a way forward,” Lord said when asked whether there was a possibility of Turkey changing its decision on S-400s.

Before the dust had settled after Shanahan’s letter was revealed on Friday, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia’s state defence manufacturer Rostec, had told the press that training for Turkish operators was complete and the transfer of the S-400s would begin by August.