‘Crete model’ unlikely to work for Turkey’s Russian S-400 missiles

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has suggested that Turkey and the U.S. could resolve their differences over his country’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defence missile systems by replicating what he called the “Crete model.” He was directly referring to Greece’s possession of older Russian S-300 missiles that have been based on Crete for years now.

“We’ve seen this before, whatever the model used for the S-300 on Crete, we’re open to negotiating,” Akar was quoted as saying

Cyprus originally ordered those S-300s in the late 1990s to deter Turkish overflights of its airspace. Ankara threatened to destroy them if they were deployed on the divided island, sparking a major crisis. That crisis was averted when Greece agreed to take delivery of the missiles instead, putting them in storage on Crete. Athens did not activate the systems until a military exercise in 2013. 

Akar’s invocation of the Crete model appears limited to Turkey only activating the S-400s under certain circumstances rather than removing them from the country.

“It’s not as if we’ll always use them,” Akar said. “The systems are used according to the state of threats. We will make decisions based on that.”

Greek S-300s, he added, are “not always operational.” 

The U.S., however, has consistently and unequivocally dismissed suggestions that it would even settle for Turkey keeping its S-400s in storage unactivated, never mind deploying them as a nonintegrated standalone air defence system. Washington has invariably stressed that Turkey needs to get rid of them altogether. 

Consequently, if Ankara is suggesting a “Crete model” that could satisfy Washington’s demands – and have U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) imposed on it since December removed – it would need to be a model whereby the missiles are moved out of country. 

One analyst has already suggested that storing the S-400s in Northern Cyprus might be such an option. That, incidentally, wasn’t the first time the idea of relocating the S-400s outside of Turkey was suggested. In June 2020, U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Thune proposed that Washington could buy the S-400s in order to have them verifiably removed from Turkey. The following month, an editorial in the Turkish state-run Daily Sabah newspaper questioned if deploying Turkish S-400s in Libya – where the Turkish military has a sizable presence, including air defences – would be acceptable for the U.S. and Russia. 

Analysts consulted by Ahval News are highly sceptical that the relocation of Turkish S-400s to either Northern Cyprus or Libya would be acceptable for Washington. 

“North Cyprus would be a very unlikely compromise, given that the U.S. does not recognize the country, and the move would alarm the Europeans and Greece, and it would necessarily not fall under compliance for the U.S. NDAA (National Defence Authorization Act), which demands that Turkey no longer use the S-400, even in a foreign setting,” said Ryan Bohl, the Middle East and North Africa Analyst for Stratfor, a RANE company. “To send it to Libya would also violate the UN arms embargo, something the U.S. would oppose.”

Furthermore, Greece and Cyprus would both be alarmed by any S-400 deployment in North Cyprus since they would view it as “a weapons system that could be utilized to further entrench Turkey’s control of the north.” 

Nicholas Heras, Director of Government Relations at the Institute for the Study of War, also doubts the relocation of Turkish S-400s to western Libya would be desirable for the U.S. or NATO since “that would mean the proliferation of advanced Russian weapons systems in the Mediterranean.” 

“Moving the S-400s to Northern Cyprus would be a clear signal that Turkey is preparing for an eventual armed conflict with Greece and its allies, which plan to use advanced air assets against Turkey in the event of a war,” Heras said.

“Ankara put itself in a corner with the S-400 system, especially with the U.S. Congress.”

Purchasing S-400s resulted in Turkey’s suspension from the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, its order for those jets cancelled, and the imposition of CAATSA sanctions. 

Even if Turkey gets rid of its S-400s, it could still take time until the U.S. would consider readmitting it into the F-35 program.

“It’s possible, but would be very slow going,” Bohl said. “They would essentially be starting the program again from scratch, and there would be lingering trust issues between the United States and Turkey that would slow its re-admittance.”

More generally, Heras believes that by proposing the Crete model, Turkey is trying to make “a NATO argument to get to keep its S-400s and remain a candidate to receive the F-35.” 

“The problem is that the S-400 systems are far more advanced than the S-300 system, and there remain deep concerns, especially from the U.S., that even a passive S-400 deployment for training purposes could be used by the Russians to gain precious intelligence on the F-35s,” he said. “This situation is seen as a security liability for the U.S. as it orients toward pushing back against Russia.” 

George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre International de Formation Européenne and research associate at the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (BESA), noted that Akar’s suggestion comes amid the backdrop of the new Biden administration in Washington and a striving on both sides to find “a modus vivendi that will safeguard” mutual U.S.-Turkish interests. 

While the S-400 is not the only issue on their agenda, it’s undoubtedly the “biggest thorn.” 

“In its interest to appease American fears, Ankara employs a public rhetoric that denotes its will to collaborate with Washington on the matter,” Tzogopoulos said. “But this will arguably exhibit it might be prepared to accept American terms.” 

On the technical level, he believes there are solutions they can explore to improve the climate of talks and views Akar’s comment on the matter as “an indication of possible technical arrangements that might perhaps be discussed from a Turkish perspective.” 

However, there is a broader ongoing problem of trust in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. 

“Dialogue continues, but dialogue itself does not magically restore the missing confidence,” Tzogopoulos said. “Having said that the U.S. will not alter its approach on the joint F-35 program in the short and medium-term.” 

Also, there is a fundamental divergence of interests and goals. Whereas Ankara is attempting to strengthen its position in a new regional order Washington seeks to preserve close cooperation with other countries in a new world order. 

“I would expect a tense Turkish-American relationship with agreements on some issues and disagreements on others,” he said. “And Russia will remain a key partner for Turkey irrespective of Washington’s frustration.”

“This also applies to the potential usage of S-400.”

 

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