November 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

The S-400: Erdogan’s Fail-safe

November 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

The S-400: Erdogan’s Fail-safe

Moscow and Ankara continue to signal that the $2.5-billion sale of four S-400 anti-aircraft batteries will proceed. While questions remain about when delivery will occur and under what conditions, both sides have an overriding interest in seeing the deal through. President Vladimir Putin wants the deal not only for monetary reasons, but also to chip away at NATO unity and to validate such sales to other nations traditionally aligned with the West. For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the acquisition of the system enhances both Turkey’s military capabilities and Erdogan’s security in office.

Erdogan’s desire for the S-400 serves both a military and a domestic political purpose. While many have rightfully pointed out that the system cannot be integrated with NATO or Turkey’s own Air Force (including current F-16s or future F-35s), the reality for Erdogan is that this is a feature and not a bug, because Erdogan needs the S-400 as a fail-safe to protect him from his own Air Force. Second, as Turkish defense analyst Can Kasapoglu has correctly spelled out, Ankara currently has less than one pilot for every available fighter jet in its Air Force. By increasing the military’s ground-based defenses against enemy aircraft, Erdogan can compensate for its lack of potency in the air.

The S-400 purchase also has a political logic. Whether or not Erdogan had prior knowledge of the failed 2016 coup attempt, the reality was there where as many as six F-16s and numerous other air assets under control of coup plotters that night. Erdogan understands full well from his close encounter with two of those F-16s that he cannot allow such freedom of movement in Turkey’s air space in a moment of crisis. It is very likely that the troops who will receive training to operate the S-400s will be those with the strongest loyalty to Erdogan and, in the event of a coup, prepared to turn the S-400s on Turkish planes.

The Turks have already made a deposit on the purchase and have voiced their preference for an earlier delivery, along with the transfer of technology which would allow for joint production. Moscow, however, has seemingly successfully rebuffed Turkey on both counts, as delivery is unlikely to occur before 2019 and at least the initial deliveries will not include any transfer of technology. President Erdogan has not made this a deal breaker, and President Putin is willing to use his leverage against a customer with limited options.

NATO and the U.S. for their part have warned Erdogan of possible consequences, with a senior senator on the Foreign Relations Committee warning that the deal may trigger sanctions. Russia’s weapons export agency, Rosoboronexport, is involved in this sale and was sanctioned in 2015. The manufacturer of the S-400 system is Almaz-Antey, which was sanctioned in 2014 and was listed by the State Department on October 26 for potential further action stemming from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

For Turkey, a NATO member, the possibility of sanctions or other complications in its strategic relations with its allies should serve as a stark warning. All of this, however, may be worthwhile for Erdogan, as the S-400 is a formidable arrow in the quiver of an autocratic leader consolidating power while looking over his shoulder.

Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he is also a Russia analyst. Follow him on Twitter @rolltidebmz

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