A sale that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago
If any single arms deal can capture the shifting nature of Russian cooperation in the post-Cold War era, it is the pending sale of S-400 air defense systems to Turkey that now looks increasingly likely to happen.
The S-400 is an advanced integrated system capable of simultaneously tracking 300 targets and striking them from up to 250 miles away. The fact that Russia would consider shipping them to Turkey—a longtime member of NATO, and once considered to be the alliance’s southeastern bulwark against the Soviet Union—would have been unthinkable even two decades ago.
Yet today the two countries are on the verge of completing a $2.5 billion deal that would pass two Russian-made S-400 systems to Turkey, along with Moscow’s promise to help Ankara build two more at home using Russian technology. On August 25, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News that the last hurdle to finalizing the deal was approval by the executive committee of Turkey’s defense industry.
If indeed finalized, the sale would signal new realities for Russia, Turkey, and Europe in several crucial ways. For one, it would confirm Turkey’s drift away from the West, which Russia has deftly used for its benefit. More broadly, it would underscore just how much the essence of Russian strategic partnerships has evolved from the Cold War period, changing the very nature of its confrontation with the West.
The rift between Turkey and fellow NATO members has been fueled by the latter’s constant criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hardline domestic policies. And it has been exacerbated by a whole range of other setbacks: divisions over Syria; the breakdown of several NATO military cooperation mechanisms involving Turkey; and the ever faint prospect of EU membership for Ankara, despite decades of promises and negotiations. The result has been a shrinking list of benefits that Turkey could hope to gain by working with Brussels and Washington.
Meanwhile, political disagreements have significantly limited the scope of mutually beneficial projects. The EU, and to a lesser degree the United States, frequently voice a desire for their partners to adhere to Western democratic and human rights standards as a precondition for cooperation. This wholesale approach has significantly limited their ability to offer economic stimuli to Turkey—a country crucial for the Caucasus, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East—that would encourage it to act in line with their strategic interests.
Yet international relations are increasingly give-and-take. Russia has been quick to grasp this new reality, which made the partnerships it forges much more practical and results-oriented. It has offered Turkey a partnership where disagreement on some issues does not exclude cooperation on many others, leading to a quickly growing rapport.
These ties have developed along several tracks. Economic links have boosted Turkey’s agriculture and tourism, while energy cooperation enables Turkey to serve as a pivotal player in Russian’s plan to diversify its gas arteries to Europe. And even on Syria, where the two countries have favored opposing sides, their search for mutually acceptable solutions has yielded some moderately effective joint maneuvers.
Russian-Turkish ties are by no means free of tension. Yet despite the many divisions—including Russia’s support for the Kurds, its ban on Turkish tomatoes, and even lingering hard feelings over Turkey’s downing of a Su-24M attack aircraft in November 2015—Russia’s ability to compartmentalize has enabled bilateral ties to proceed.
Now the S-400 deal stands to take bilateral cooperation to a new level. If it signed the agreement, Turkey would become only the second large-scale buyer of S-400 technology. Both the previous buyer, China (which concluded a similar pact in 2015 for $3 billion), and the only other country that has shown active interest in the system, India, have long-standing arms-trade relationships with Russia. It is also worth noting that, in Turkey’s case, the Russian systems would come without NATO’s usual limits on air defense system deployment, allowing Ankara to place them near Armenia or Greece if it so desires.
For Russia, too, the deal will mark a major defense industry breakthrough. For one, in contrast to many Soviet-era clients, Turkey is financially reliable. Even more significant, a sale of this scale could enhance Russia’s position in the global arms market, especially in the Middle East where even more affluent clients abound. After all, if a NATO country can buy Russian S-400s, there is no reason why Gulf monarchies cannot do the same.
As long as the agreement remains to be finalized, there is a chance that Erdogan can use it as a bargaining chip with the West. There is a precedent for this already. In 2016, NATO and the United States were able to exert sufficient pressure on Turkey to stop it from purchasing Chinese missile systems. However, with complicated political environments both in the United States and the EU, Turkey’s erstwhile partners are highly unlikely to marshal enough resources to induce Erdogan to choose their side.