March 29, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Is Turkey about to ditch its Russian S-400 missile system?

March 29, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Is Turkey about to ditch its Russian S-400 missile system?

Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian-manufactured S-400 missile air defense system in 2019 (in place of United States or NATO-manufactured equivalents) resulted, not only in Turkey being booted out of the F-35 program but also in the imposition of U.S. sanctions.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brushed away international criticism and called the S400 a “done deal.” This single acquisition has poisoned Ankara’s relationship with the West and prevented Turkey from being able to acquire alternative platforms to the F-35 from the U.S., namely the F-16.

However, Haluk Gorgun, Turkey’s chief of Aselsan — the country’s leading defense manufacturer — recently stated, “We are making air defense systems. We don’t need S-300s, S-400s.” That a leading defense manufacturer close to Erdogan would make such a public statement, published in a leading newspaper that is pro-Erdogan, suggests that Turkey may be signaling its intent. If so, then this is most likely to happen following Turkey’s elections on May 15.

Assuming that Erdogan retains power, he has already informed U.S. authorities that he is interested in a rapprochement with Washington.

This intention was made clear by a recent opinion piece published by Ankara’s ambassador to Washington. More importantly, Erdogan’s spokesman recently paid a visit to Washington trying to outline all the areas in which Washington and Ankara could work together in Erdogan’s third presidential term. In that regard, Turkey’s divestment of the S400s would be a significant gesture. In the long list of items that divide Washington and Ankara, the S400 is at the top of the list. It would be Erdogan’s hope that such a gesture would allow Congress to lift its objections to selling Turkey F-16s and remove sanctions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently informed the U.S. Senate that Turkey was a “difficult ally,” largely representative of the administration’s position that it would like to sell new fighter jets to Turkey.

However, the list of American grievances against Ankara is long, and one gesture will not likely be enough. Turkey continues to be a spoiler inside of NATO. Although it recently approved Finland’s application for NATO membership, it still blocks Sweden. In Europe, Erdogan continues its belligerent and hostile stance towards Greece and Cyprus over maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean. In Syria, the Turkish military threatens on a daily basis the security of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the U.S. military, who are jointly fighting the Islamic State.

Erdogan is on a widespread charm offensive and desires to rebuild many bilateral relationships which he single-handedly destroyed in the last ten years.

This can be seen in the cases of Israel, Egypt, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia. In each instance, he has reached out to turn a page with regional leaders by offering tokens of policy change in the hopes of overcoming Ankara’s isolation. However, in each instance, his tokens may not be sufficient to rebuild substantive ties. For example, with Israel, although diplomatic representation to the ambassadorial level has been re-established, Erdogan falls short of making good on a key Israeli demand: the expulsion of Hamas from Turkey.

U.S. ties are understandably high on Erdogan’s list.

He is likely calculating that Putin is politically weakened and a post-election climate in Turkey can allow him to finally ditch his S400s. That said, the U.S. should also not be brainwashed into thinking that Erdogan is re-anchoring Turkey into the western fold. There are many more outstanding demands that Ankara needs to address before F-16s are sold to Ankara. One could argue that putting a long list of demands in front of Erdogan may deter and anger him, and in the event that he doesn’t get F-16s, he may turn to other countries to make the purchase-possibly adversaries.

Possibly, but one has to remember that if the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins, he would likely undo a lot of Erdogan’s policies discussed above that divide the beleaguered allies.

Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy