Resolving the S-400 Standoff

Turkey has traditionally been a strong customer of the U.S. defense industry. However, in recent years, the negative environment in U.S. Congress has prevented Turkey from enjoying a strong defense partnership with the U.S.

Resolving the S-400 Standoff
US President Donald Trump (L) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) speak as they attend the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on July 11, 2018. Getty Images

The U.S.-Turkey relationship is up for renewed tensions in the coming months as a result of the pending S-400 air defense system purchase from Russia. The U.S. Congress has introduced several legislative measures, clearly designed to send Turkey a message about the potential transfer of these systems to Turkish soil. Congress had already asked Pentagon to produce a report about the state of relations with Turkey and blocked the potential transfer of F-35s to Turkey unless the S-400 transaction was canceled. Given the increasing role of Congress in especially Russia-related foreign policy matters as a result of the showdown with President Trump due to the Mueller investigation, Turkey’s S-400 purchase from Russia is destined to become a part of this domestic political struggle.  

At the technical level, various news reports indicate that U.S. military leaders think the security of F-35s would be compromised if they are operated alongside S-400s. Turkey has recommended to create a technical group to address these concerns but the U.S. is considering this as a tacit acknowledgement that purchasing Russian military systems might seem acceptable. Turkey has also made it clear that the decision to purchase S-400s was made after years of an air defense system that met Turkish requirements on price, tech transfer, and delivery schedules. After years of negotiations with the U.S., Europe, and China, Russia took the opportunity to provide Turkey with a deal that met all the Turkish conditions, adding favorable financing terms that were meant to sweeten the deal. However, the evolution of the Turkish position and how we got here seem to have little impact on the U.S. military leaders who find it unimaginable to allow a Russian system being operated alongside F-35s.

Given the increasing role of Congress in especially Russia-related foreign policy matters as a result of the showdown with President Trump due to the Mueller investigation, Turkey’s S-400 purchase from Russia is destined to become a part of this domestic political struggle.  

There is surely an economic aspect of this issue as well. The U.S. is not particularly thrilled about the Russian S-400 System’s encroachment into the international arms market, especially on the soil of a NATO country. For Turkey, however, various NATO members’ and the Obama administration’s decisions to pull the Patriots from the Turkish border with Syria without consultations with Turkey is a sore point. Turkey was exposed to missile threats from within Syria, where the civil war was raging and the absence of Turkey’s own air defense capabilities was laid bare in the face of a relatively sophisticated air defense system enjoyed by the Syrian regime at the time. Ever since, Turkey felt a diminished sense of solidarity in protecting Turkish security by its NATO allies. The Syrian conflict’s various threats pushed Turkey to urgently find solutions to its security capability gaps.

Turkey has traditionally been a strong customer of the U.S. defense industry. However, in recent years, the negative environment in U.S. Congress has prevented Turkey from enjoying a strong defense partnership with the U.S.

Turkey has traditionally been a strong customer of the U.S. defense industry. However, in recent years, the negative environment in U.S. Congress has prevented Turkey from enjoying a strong defense partnership with the U.S. The U.S. support for the YPG in northern Syria has soured bilateral ties as well. The current standoff about the S-400s threatens the decades-long strong defense relationship between the two NATO allies. There is no question that it would simply benefit Russia to give Turkey ultimatums rather than work with the Turkish leadership to resolve the issue. The U.S. needs to reassure Turkey about its security needs and repair the damage done by the U.S. support for the YPG. The two NATO allies have cooperated on creating a safe zone plan in recent months, thanks in large part to the U.S. team on Syria that is much more willing to take Turkish concerns seriously and address them properly on the ground. A similar cooperative attitude rather than a confrontational one needs to occur with the S-400 issue. Neither the U.S. nor Turkey would benefit from a strategic drift from one another.