U.S.-Turkey missile defence system spat simmers on despite pandemic

Turkey’s government has said it has no intention to go back on its plan to activate the S-400 missile systems it received from Russia last year, though the coronavirus pandemic has forced it to delay from its original activation date in April.

In the meantime, Ankara is still trying to secure U.S. military support, which presently hinges on it getting rid of its controversial purchase from Moscow. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reaffirmed on April 14 that Turkey would like to buy US MIM-104 Patriot air defence missiles if “a good offer” is made by Washington. He also repeated Turkey’s offer to establish “a technical working group with NATO’s inclusion” to examine Turkish S-400s and assuage concerns about having the Russian-built missile system operating on a NATO member’s soil. 

“Turkey is facing a severe economic downturn, which has exacerbated amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Süleyman Özeren, a Turkey expert at George Mason University, told Ahval. 

Consequently, “Ankara’s search for a compromise now is driven more by economic urgency than a military priority,” he said. 

Ankara still seeks U.S. military support on its southern border with Syria’s Idlib province, where it engaged in an unprecedented series of clashes with Russian-backed Syrian government forces in late February and early March. Those clashes resulted in the death of over 60 Turkish soldiers, including at least 34 in a single airstrike on February 27.

Ankara asked the United States to deploy Patriot air defence missiles on its southern border to deter such airstrikes against its troops. 

Turkey has since deployed at least one of its older and inferior MIM-23 HAWK anti-aircraft missiles in Idlib. The only NATO country that presently has Patriot missiles deployed in Turkey is Spain. 

The United States has so far refused to deploy Patriots in Turkey or to provide Ankara with the option to purchase Patriots of its own. Though an offer was on the table for Turkey to buy these missiles in the first half of 2019 if it cancelled its S-400 order, Ankara doubled down and took delivery of the first S-400s components in July. Washington then automatically rescinded its Patriot offer.

Now, the United States insists that Turkey has to remove the S-400s from its soil in return for any Patriot deployment, never mind a sale.

The U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, emphasized that U.S. support hinged on Turkey removing the Russian system.

U.S. Defence Department spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman also said in March that, “Turkey is not going to receive a Patriot battery unless it returns the S-400.”

“Washington’s view on the preconditions for Patriot deployment or sale hasn’t changed,” Özeren said, adding that if Ankara does back down from its pledge to activate its S-400s, then Washington may consider deploying Patriots.

“Contrary to what some believe, I think Ankara’s quest for compromise with Washington proves that sanctions are working,” he said. “At least, Ankara could not face the economic ramifications.” 

Turkey had hoped it could buy a limited number of S-400s and still retain the option to buy Patriot missiles. 

“Turkish leaders view the S-400 purchase as a means to enhance Turkish anti-air capabilities in the event of a national emergency such as a coup attempt and to build a better relationship with Russia, a neighbour and historic rival to Turkey,” Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Program Manager at The Institute for the Study of War, told Ahval.

The primary reason the United States removed Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Program and cancelled its order for 100 of the fifth-generation jets was over fears that the Russian system could obtain sensitive information from the new-generation, multi-billion-dollar aircraft.

The United States’ ambiguous stance with Turkey on the Patriot missiles, on the other hand, seems more political than technical.

“The United States tabled its Patriot offer before Ankara was officially removed from the F-35 consortium, but pulled it once the S-400 was delivered,” Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East and National Security Programs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Ahval.

“Now, the agreement is premised on Ankara not using its S-400,” he said. “The United States is trying to get leverage.”

Also, more broadly, the Turkish purchase of the Russian system raised serious questions in Washington over Turkey’s geopolitical orientation.

“The United States views Turkey’s purchase of S-400 systems as a move that compromises the solidarity of NATO and provides Russia with another avenue of influence into a key NATO partner,” Heras said. 

In March, it was reported that Turkey might sign a second contract with Russia for additional S-400s. The prospect of co-production and technology transfers are also being hinted at once again. 

“Judging by official statements in the Russia media, transfer of technologies and joint production of some elements of the arms system is on the agenda,” Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based researcher for the Russian International Affairs Council, told Ahval. 

“Know-how transfer, as we remember, was one of two major goals of the original Turkish tender along with the necessity to close the gap in high-altitude layers in its domestic air defence infrastructure,” he said. 

By hinting at such prospects, Russia is seemingly trying to keep talks on the issue going. 

“The fate of the possible second contract may depend on the state of Turkey’s relations with Western partners, with whom it would prefer cooperation in terms of joint development of air defence systems,” Akhmetov said. 

If Turkey purchases more S-400s while being continually denied Patriots, that would further entrench its military cooperation with Russia at the expense of its traditional cooperation with the United States and NATO.

A second S-400 contract, however, is likely low on Ankara’s agenda for now since it is facing its second economic crisis in two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Turkey hard. 

“Turkey’s move to delay the activation of the S-400 is reinforced by both deepening of economic crisis due to COVID-19 and the potential ramifications of Washington’s sanctions,” Özeren said. 

Now Turkey is looking for a way out while still saving face. Özeren warned that if it chooses to double down once again and order more S-400s “the consequences would be more devastating than Ankara might anticipate.”


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