“The time has come for Ankara to choose whether or not it wants to act like a member of NATO,” said James Inhofe of the US Senate Armed Services Committee a few months ago, echoing similar statements from other US officials.
With the arrival of Russian S-400s to Turkey this week, the time for warnings is history. The question is how will Washington respond now?
More specifically, how does one explain its silence after the Pentagon’s repeated warnings that the Russian-made missile system is incompatible with NATO defence systems? Is it waiting until 31 July when its original ultimatum runs out?
Observers in Turkey have another explanation. On the basis of leaks both in Anatolia and abroad, they believe that the delay in the reaction from the White House is deliberate and in keeping with an agreement with Ankara after a phone call between Acting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar last Friday, following the delivery of the S-400s.
Akar apparently told Esper about the warm and harmonious meeting between Presidents Trump and Erdogan in Osaka last month and how that the latter made pledges that would dispel US concerns.
At the same time, Akar told the Turkish press that Turkish soldiers are continuing their training both at home and in Russia on how to assemble and operate the S-400 missile defence system. In this regard, one could not help but to note Russian press reports relayed in the Turkish press (albeit in opposition news outlets) that Russia now has concerns that Erdogan will make a deal with Trump in accordance with which he will reveal the secrets of the Russian defence system to US defence experts in order to avoid sanctions.
Beneath the headline, “What is the risk in sending the S-400 to Turkey?” which appeared in the Russian-language Svobodnaya Pressa.
Leobova Shvedova wrote: “A short while ago, talk about sanctions from Washington took a new turn. This occurred after Trump spoke with Erdogan on the fringes of the G-20 Summit late last month. Trump told him that all was fine and that Uncle Sam had no problem.”
The Russian article, which appeared in Arabic translation in the Arabic edition of Russia Today, continued: “Trump himself said that he could understand Ankara and that he hadn’t been treated fairly before (by the Obama administration).”
The author then asked: “Does this come as a surprise, especially after the threats the US levelled against its NATO ally? Suspicions only mount. It is as though Erdogan struck an agreement with Trump on the S-400s that would make Russia come out the loser. Delivering the missiles to Turkey raises the risk that US technical staff will have access to them. In other words, the US will be able to study our air defence system. Theoretically, this could harm our defence capacities.”
The Russian military expert Alexey Leonkov maintains that such fears are exaggerated since the version of the missile system sent to Turkey is radically different from the one the Russian army uses. Shvedova acknowledges this, but adds that the US’s chances of accessing the secrets of Russian technology “are not zero”. Of course, the same could be said regarding the possibilities of Russian access to the secrets of US F-35 technology.
Regardless of the conspiracy theories circulating in the Russian and Turkish media, the question is less about technology than about global geostrategy, now that a NATO member has opted to go ahead with the purchase of an advanced Russian missile defence system.
But Greece and Bulgaria have similar Russian-made systems. Why the double standards? The answer to this is that the Turkish-Russian deal comes on top of a train of other actions and behaviours that have combined to erode all US and European trust in Ankara.
So, the sanctions that US officials have warned of are going to happen. They may be put off for a bit and the blow may be softened a little through some haggling. But in the end, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is clear and unequivocal. Even if Trump tries to fend off implementation citing “national security interests”, it is doubtful that he could produce a well substantiated argument and the Senate could still override him.
As everyone knows, US sanctions are nearly impossible to evade. For Turkey, whose economy has slowed considerably, whose lira has plunged and whose treasury is desperately short of the foreign currency reserves it needs to cover the government’s huge foreign debt, they would be unsustainable.
Worse yet, European foreign ministers, in a meeting on 15 July, approved sanctions of their own against Turkey in response to Ankara’s determination to drill for gas in Cypriot territorial waters in breach of international law. The measures included a reduction in the pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020 and a call to the European investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey, notably with regard to sovereign-backed lending.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: S-400s arrive to Turkey