Putin’s S-400 trap?

Hany Ghoraba
Friday 26 Jul 2019

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin intending to drive a wedge through NATO by selling weapons to Turkey?

An unprecedented rupture occurred within NATO in the past week as US President Donald Trump announced that Turkey was no longer part of the development programme group for the new state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet. 

The decision was based on US Department of Defence and Congressional reports that indicate that should Turkey purchase the new Russian-made S-400 strategic-defence system this could compromise the safety of the F-35 programme.

Turkey and an assortment of other NATO members had been exclusively tasked to manufacture the parts for this advanced fighter. 

Turkey was tasked to manufacture 844 parts out of the nearly 185,000 that comprise the jet. The decision will force NATO to find an alternative manufacturer for these parts, and this could delay the programme.

The F-35 is the most ambitious and expensive military project in history, with costs exceeding over $400 billion and perhaps reaching $1 trillion by completion. 

The political significance of the ban for Turkey is huge and represents the first of its kind within the NATO alliance. Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles breached NATO rules established in 1949 that oblige members of the alliance to use arms manufactured by NATO members.

The S-400 air-defence system could expose the secrets of how the F-35 operates if it was connected within the NATO defence protocol.  

Owing to its limited use for the moment, the F-35 has not reached the 80 per cent combat readiness that had been aimed for this year. It is far from the 100 per cent combat readiness targeted by the US and its allies for their extremely expensive fighter jets programme.

This has been marred by failures in tests and even during training when a Japanese fighter was downed last April.  

The new fighter is not as invincible as advertised by NATO as a result, and it is unlikely to be the fighter jet that will end the competition, as was previously declared.

The introduction of Russian missiles in Turkey could also expedite the exposure of the new jet’s vulnerabilities, and these could be taken into consideration during the development of the new S-500 Russian system, which aims to be the most advanced in the world. 

Such Russian goals cannot be neglected by the US and its allies. The US has spent extravagantly on the new jet’s development, and it cannot afford to see its secrets handed over on a platter to Russia.

There is also a psychological warfare component, since if the Russians discovered how to track and target the new F-35 fighters, this would mean that the most expensive military programme in the world had been executed in vain. Heads would roll at the US department of defence as a result. 

Putin has thus managed to cause a headache for his NATO adversaries by dealing them a double blow. He will be a winner by selling a $2 billion defence system to the Turkish state, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been seeking to patch up matters with the Russians after the 2015 crisis when a Russian fighter jet was downed near the Syrian border and the Russian ambassador in Istanbul was assassinated.  

Putin has not forgotten how Erdogan treated the matter with his well-known haughtiness, and he has carefully crafted a vengeance plan in his own Machiavellian way.

With Erdogan keen on patching up matters with Putin, he accepted the purchase of the S-400s even knowing that it could incur problem later with NATO, which he thought he would be able to handle at the time. Erdogan purchased the system to appease the Russians, who in turn knew that this would not be taken lightly by the US and NATO. 

Putin has managed to isolate Erdogan, who may now feel that Putin is his only friend after the latter has systematically ruined every diplomatic relationship that Turkey has kept up over recent decades, including with the EU, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Syria and Iraq. He may now feel reliant on Putin’s weaponry systems, which will sink him in a bigger hole. 

The Russian media has already hinted that Russia is interested in offering its SU-35 fighter jets to Turkey and possibly also its SU-57 stealth fighter which is still in development. Should the Turks take this proposal seriously, the position of Turkey as a NATO member would be under serious threat. 

However, the US administration despite its problems with Erdogan would not be happy to see a founding member of the alliance go, and this feeling would be intensified were Turkey to become a Russian ally.

That nightmare scenario would come to pass if the US were to lose the second-largest army in the NATO alliance and its strategic air base in Incirlik as a result.

Putin seemingly read this scenario clearly when he supplied the Turks with the new S-400 defence system because he knew he would come out a winner under a range of scenarios. 

Should Turkey’s membership in NATO be frozen or revoked as many voices in Western political circles now demand, he would have one less potential foe to worry about, especially given Turkey’s geostrategic importance to NATO.  

At the same time, he would secure a new buyer for Russian military equipment despite Turkey’s economic woes in recent years. Knowing Erdogan’s mentality, Putin can be pretty certain that he will buy more Russian equipment to spite NATO. The worst possible case would be if the Turks just settled for the S-400 purchase, though even in that case he would have lost nothing and would have gained a big military deal while slowing down the development of the F-35 programme and gaining time for the Russian SU-57 programme to catch up. 

Through the sale of the S-400 missile system to Turkey, Putin has attained the ultimate payback on Erdogan while keeping a smiling face. It is a win-win situation for Putin, since he has managed to persuade a NATO member to break the rules the alliance has kept to since its inception.

He has provoked action against Turkey from NATO, thus creating an unprecedented rupture in the alliance.

However, talk of Turkey being kicked out of NATO is premature and may be unrealistic for the moment unless something drastic happens such as a defence pact between the Turks and the Russians or the Russians being allowed to set up a base inside Turkey.

NATO is unlikely to let Turkey fall into Russian hands, however. Trump did not take steps to move the US military base from Qatar, despite this state’s history of financing terrorism.

He was satisfied with the Qatari gesture of upgrading the base with $8 billion of its own money, and if he was satisfied with that, he would be unlikely to do anything about Turkey. 

There may be alternative solutions within NATO other than losing Turkey altogether, especially since it has an unpopular president in Erdogan who is struggling to stay afloat.

The US also still holds quite a few economic and political cards, including Erdogan’s nemesis the preacher Fethullah Gülen who has claimed asylum in the US.  

However, such solutions can only be resorted to depending on how the escalating situation with Turkey develops. They may occur even while Putin is satisfied that he has had the last laugh. 

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Putin’s S-400 trap

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