S-400: Why Turkey is NOT in Russia's Pocket

Alphen, Netherlands. 17 July. This month’s first delivery to Turkey of the advanced Russian S-400 air defence missile system is to some a sign that Ankara is leaving the Western Alliance. Washington has even threatened sanctions under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). In fact, Turkey is not in Russia’s pocket, as one headline suggested, but Ankara has been alienated from the West. Here is why.

A few years ago I visited Gallipoli as the head of a delegation. It was humbling to see so many Turkish families paying respects to the ancestors who had given their lives defending the peninsula from Allied forces in 1915. On the summit of the ridge that dominates Gallipoli, I stood where Kemal Ataturk had commanded Turkish forces, before he became leader of the Turkish Republic and set his country on a path of reconciliation and alignment with his erstwhile Western enemies. Indeed, as part of that same visit I had the great honour of laying a wreath at the tomb of the great Turk in Ankara. Departing Turkey I came away with a sense of how Turks view their country and their place in the world. It is that view which, I believe, informs contemporary Turkish policy.


Much has been made of Ankara’s decision. Moscow likes to portray the decision to acquire Russian S-400 air defence missiles, and jointly develop the new S-500 system, as evidence that President Erdogan is aligning himself with President Putin. Washington is even threatening to withhold delivery of advanced F35 fighters to Turkey for fear that Moscow may be right. Rather, both Moscow and Washington simply fail to understand either Turkey or President Erdogan.


President Erdogan, like many Turks, has become increasingly frustrated with his Western allies.  The refugee crisis that resulted from the war over Turkey’s border with Syria placed the country under intense pressure with over three million people having arrived seeking shelter.  Ankara’s view is that Turkey’s European allies made little effort to assist, preferring instead to blame the Turks for allowing huge numbers of refugees to illegally enter the European Union via Greece.


The sense of alienation from ‘Europe’ Turks felt over the refugees was compounded by the final realisation by Ankara that Turkey would never be offered full membership of the EU. The accession process began as early as 1987, with negotiations for full EU membership starting in 2005, albeit painfully slowly. In 2016, Chancellor Merkel agreed a new deal with President Erdogan that would have seen control of migrant flows into Europe in return for visa-free travel for Turks across Europe. The Turks believe they have kept their side of the bargain, whilst the EU has not. In February 2019, the European Parliament voted to suspend all accession talks with Turkey, partly in response the draconian wave of arrests that followed the failed July 2016 coup.


There are additional factors that fuel Turkey’s sense of grievance. US support for Kurdish forces in the struggle against Daesh in Syria triggered deep concerns in Ankara that Washington would eventually back the creation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Syria adjacent to Turkey’s border. The very idea is utterly inimical to Turks. President Erdogan was also offended by what he saw as tacit European support for the coup attempt by ‘liberal’ army officers.


The all-too-evident distaste of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron for President Erdogan is also a factor.  They, like several other liberal Western European leaders, view Erdogan as a reactionary determined to reverse the separation of Mosque and state started by Ataturk.  They also regret that he does not behave like a Western European liberal. The point they seem to forget is precisely that: President Erdogan is NOT a Western European liberal and shares few of the same values.


Which brings me to why Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 does not mean Ankara is now a Russian ally. President Erdogan is a traditional Turkish leader of a country faced with Russia to the north, Iran to the east Syria, Lebanon and Israel to the south, with the Balkans to contend with to the west. Shorn of what he any longer regards as reliable Western allies Erdogan is behaving like a classical Turkish or Ottoman leader of old.  He also understands all too well his country’s strengths and its weaknesses. Turkey’s strength is that it sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the West and the Middle East, and (critically and decisively) between Russia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Turkey’s weakness is precisely all of the above.  President Erdogan is thus simply doing what generations of Turkish leaders have done in ages past; focus exclusively on what he regards as Turkey’s vital interests and states in need of Turkish support work for the ‘privilege’. In other words, President Erdogan is a classical Turkish strategic horse-trader willing to deal with anyone who can offer a good deal to Turkey…and him.        


Some months ago, I had dinner in Izmir with a friend of mine, who is also a confidante of President Erdogan. He assured me that Turkey was not withdrawing from the West, but rather taking steps ensure its own security. The purchase of one system, my friend assured me, was not proof that Turkey was ‘defecting’ to the Russian camp, on intent on stymieing NATO. Rather, Turkey lived in a turbulent neighbourhood, the Russian air defence system was value-for-money, and relatively good relations with Moscow made strategic sense given where Turkey sits on the strategic map.


The big strategic question Americans and Europeans should thus ask themselves is not what Turkey can do for them, but how important Turkey is to their security, and what price are they willing to pay to keep Turkey onside? There is a particular urgency about this question for Europeans. Europe is in headlong retreat from power-realism whilst insisting on a rules-based system in a world where those with real power preferRealpolitik. Dealing with President Erdogan is thus a test-case for how Europeans maintain a vital partnership with a leader with whom it shares few values.  To succeed, ‘Europe’ will need to stop lecturing Ankara and start dealing with it. There is a deal to be done. The S-400 deployment does not mean Turkey is in Russia’s ‘pocket’. The only ‘pocket’ in which Turkey is ‘in’, under President Erdogan, is decidedly Turkish, and tailored exclusively in Ankara.