Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Turkey’s Russian missile deal alarms US

Nato allies Turkey and the United States are at loggerheads over Turkey’s decision to buy S-400 missile defence system from Russia

A view shows a S-400 surface-to-air missile system at a military base outside near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. Reuters
A view shows a S-400 surface-to-air missile system at a military base outside near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. Reuters

Security links between Nato allies the United States and Turkey are at risk, Washington says, following Ankara’s recent decision to buy a missile defence system from Russia.

Moscow has found itself at the centre of the disagreement between Washington and Ankara by promising to sell Turkey its flagship S-400 surface-to-air missile system. The US claims that the hardware is not compatible with Nato defence systems and has threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey if it goes ahead with the deal.

National Security Adviser John Bolton this month became the latest and and among the most high-profile American official to call foul during an interview with John Catsimatidis, a New York-based radio host on 970 AM.

"We're concerned about their purchase of the Russian air defence system called the S-400 – that's a big problem," Mr Bolton said. “They're still a Nato ally; we’re trying to work with them. [US President Donald] Trump would like to have good relationship with Turkey.”

Russia and Turkey brokered the reported $2.5 billion (Dh9.2 bn) missile deal back in 2017 as the two countries were working to repair ties after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border in the end of 2015.

In the years since, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who regularly travels to Russia, has become a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Alongside Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, the presidents are angling for a compromise on how to rout opposition from the last rebel-held territory in Syria and bring about an end to the eight-year conflict.

Mr Erdogan says the Russian air defence system is not incompatible with Nato. "We concluded the S-400 issue, signed a deal with the Russians and will start co-production," he told Turkish media earlier in March.

A US official speaking anonymously last week said that Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 did not equate to it leaving Nato, Reuters reported. But the official stressed that the decision should be seen as a national security issue, just not from a commercial perspective.

"We are continuing to work on a range of options to ensure that Turkey’s participation in the Nato alliance and bilateral relationship can continue unabated and unimpinged," the official said.

Meanwhile US negotiators are trying to convince Ankara to substitute the S-400 system with the American patriot system, which would avoid disrupting delivery of American F-35 jets.

“We need Turkey to buy the Patriot," US acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan told Congress this week.

Turkey will take part in the Nato ministerial meeting hosted by Washington next week. But with Ankara set to start receiving the S-400 parts this summer, to be deployed in October, the window is closing on the Turkish-American talks.

If Turkey obtains the S-400 “they would not have access to Patriot [missiles] and the F-35” jets, Charlie Summers, Pentagon spokesperson said earlier this month.

The deployment of S-400 in Turkey would immediately trigger sanctions under a law passed by Congress and signed by the US president in August 2017.

The law targets anyone dealing with certain Russian intelligence and military entities.

Congress is also moving to halt the sale of at least 100 F-35 jets to Ankara.

In its National Defence Authorisation Act, Congress considered the S-400 deal a threat to the security of the Nato alliance, and enforced a halt on F-35 deliveries until the State Department submits a report to Congress detailing a “description of plans for the imposition of sanctions, if appropriate” for the S-400 purchase.

"It's a tough issue," Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford said last week, adding that the US “would have a hard time" making the sale to a country that’s obtaining an S-400 system.

Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, explained the issue to Reuters saying, "The S-400 is a computer. The F-35 is a computer. You don't hook your computer to your adversary's computer and that's basically what we would be doing.”

The US has sharpened its message because “it is running out of time,” Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told The National.

Ankara’s “removal from the F-35 consortium and the blocking of the F-35 delivery to Ankara” are some of the immediate options under consideration he said. But in the larger political context, Mr Stein said the the S-400 deal “appears to be a political arrangement between Mr Erdogan and Putin, so any last minute cancellation would also have spillover effects on their personal relationship.”

Since the Soviet era, Russia’s arms agreements have had the dual purpose of deepening political ties with buyers. Yuri Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russia International Affairs Council, a think tank set up to advise the Kremlin, says the S-400 deal is no different.

“The S-400 deal with Turkey is both a political and a commercial project,” Mr Barmin told The National. “Politically of course it’s hugely important given the fact that Turkey’s use of S-400 drives a wedge between Ankara and Nato partners. It also drives Turkey closer to Russia since S-400 comes with a whole package of training and service.”

Russia’s deepening alliance with Turkey in Syria means Erdogan would have a difficult time backing out of the S-400 deal now even if he wanted to says Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Programme at The Washington Institute.

Because Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria against Kurdish rebel groups are ostensibly sanctioned by Mr Putin, says Mr Cagaptay, that approval comes predicated on Mr Erdogan’s purchase of the S-400 systems.

“So, in a way Erdogan has been cornered,” Mr Cagaptay told The National. “Even if he [Erdogan] wants to back out of this for reasons of not rupturing his alliance with the US, his Syria policy is being completely folded under his commitment to buy the S400 system.”

The S-400, which first entered service in 2007, has become one of the most sought after missile systems primarily due to its range, analysts said.

“The S-400 is superior to Russia’s own S-300 because it can intercept long-range missiles up to 400 kilometres, which the S-300 can’t do,” says Mr Barmin. “And it is superior to the Patriot system because its range is only 100km. With the right radars in place, it can also intercept stealth aircraft.”

Updated: March 27, 2019 06:54 PM

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