Finally, after talking about it for over two years, Turkey is actually receiving its Russian S400 surface to air missile defence system, albeit at a slow pace.
The S400 issue has been discussed by Turkey watchers endlessly and has been the subject of many a commentary and policy piece. I am guilty of writing my own fair few. For example, I wrote a piece for The Nationalback in May which can be accessed here. Most recently, just after the first consignment of parts for the S400 landed in Turkey, I wrote another piece for Haaretz which can be found here.
In my opinion the logic behind the S400 purchase cannot be understood in military terms. S-400s may be sophisticated and able to shoot down stealth fighters, but they are more effectivewhen part of an integrated defence system. Russia uses S400s together with medium and short-range surface to air missiles such as SA-17s and SA-24s. Turkey doesn't have those. Instead it has British Rapiers, American MIM-23s, Turkish made PMADS and radar systems which are mainly American, British or French. In other words, Nato hardware. Meanwhile, by jeopardising its involvement in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, Ankara loses out on having the most advanced aircraft in the world and exclusion from Nato.
Some have noted the increased influence of the Eurasianistswithin the defence decision making elite in Turkey - individuals who among other things, believe that Turkey’s best interests are best served outside of Nato. However, the presence of the Eurasianist group is not necessarily a new phenomenon. They have been around for ages. However, purges within the military and state bureaucracy have allowed them to gain influence in Ankara. Still, their influence reflects a willingness on the part of Turkey’s political decision makers to be influenced.
Some have argued that Turkey felt that Nato did not show enough solidaritywith Ankara after Turkey downed a Russian jet flying between Turkish and Syrian airspace back in 2015. This is not right. First off, this was the first time a Nato country downed a Russian plane for several decades so, sure, Nato called for calm and a de-escalation of tension. And rightfully so, anything else would have been unreasonable. But this was while Nato offered its solidaritywith Ankara and stood by Turkey’s version of events. Regardless, this cannot be the reason for the S400 purchase. Why buy Russian hardware if Russian planes are the threat?
Some have suggested that the price of US Patriots was a hindrance, but US and European hardware is almost always more expensive than those produced by Russia and China for a variety of reasons. Some think that US support for the YPG, which Turkey links to the PKK, was a factor. Again, I don’t buy it. If Ankara can compartmentalise its relations with Russia and its anger for Moscow’s support for Asad’s operations in Idlib, why cannot it do the same with the US support for the YPG against ISIS?
Leaving aside Conspiratorial notions that it was the U.S. which was really behind the 2016 attempted coup and therefore Turkey needs non-NATO hardware in order for the government to protect itself against future putschists (if true this would determine Turkey as a weak state and any country considering a strategic alliance with Ankara should therefore think twice), in order to understand why Turkey purchased the S400s, we need to go beyond strategic logic.
Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur. It finds it difficult to reconcile the fact that it is a medium-sized power and all this Neo-Ottomanism and self-perception as a leader of the Muslim world is an expression of how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others would like Turkey to be, rather than how it actually is. This is why President Erdogan was unable to back down against the US over the S400s. If he did, it would have been an admission that Turkey’s leadership status is built on a house of cards. The irony is that now with relations with the US, Europe and Nato in jeopardy, that house of cards will be more shaky than ever and leave Turkey’s international standing worse off.