It was not so long ago that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described Turkey’s decision to purchase the sophisticated Russian S-400 anti-ballistic missile systems as a difficult issue.
“It goes without saying that it will be a difficult issue,” Stoltenberg was quoted as saying by Hürriyet Daily News on Feb 22. He also repeated that this was a national decision on behalf of Turkey, although it was pretty obvious that the Russian system would not be interoperable with existing NATO systems in Turkey.
Turkey’s procurement of S-400s will lead to impacts and consequences under three main titles. The first and perhaps the most important is the fact that Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system would trigger U.S. sanctions on Turkey. There is a wide consensus that Turkey’s deal with the Russian defense industry for the S-400s will be assessed under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Turkey and the U.S. had agreed to work on the issue during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara last month. A week after this meeting, a U.S. official told Hürriyet Daily News that Washington was seeking cooperation with Turkey to boost Turkish air defense capabilities as an alternative to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries.
However, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said a number of times that Ankara would remain true to its word and would purchase S-400 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia as promised.
In second place are the NATO’s institutional concerns with regard to the military consequences of the deployment of S-400 systems on NATO soil. NATO Chairman of Military Committee Gen. Petr Pavel explained why the military committee has been worried about Turkey’s deployment of the sophisticated system.
Czech Republic’s Former Chief of General Staff Gen Pavel explained that the value of the sophisticated S-400 missile system is “in the database.” “The database will be collected in the territory of a NATO ally and all allied assets present in Turkey will be mapped and logged in the Russian systems.”
According to Pavel, getting the S-400 ready for battle is not like handing a soldier a Kalashnikov, which can be used by any untrained soldier. Rather, Russian personnel will be on the ground to instruct the Turkish military how to operate the complicated radars and fire control systems, handing Moscow critical intelligence on what NATO assets are present in the country, where they are, and what kind of capabilities they may have.
This senior commander’s explanation introduces yet another dimension to the ongoing complication. It is a direct warning to Turkey that this deployment would undermine the NATO’s longstanding collective defense understanding as well as its allied military structure.
Thirdly, Turkey’s intensified military-to-military engagement accompanied with S-400 procurement is seen as yet another move from Russia to weaken the NATO alliance through creating fractures within the Euro-Atlantic area. Increased Russian military activities along the NATO borders in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region are regarded as among the major threats the alliance is facing. The NATO countries in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe see them as an existential threat and are calling on the alliance to do more to counter Russia. The upcoming NATO Summit this summer will surely address all these challenges in the European continent as well as Turkey’s go-it-alone stance over the deployment of S-400s.
Furthermore, this disagreement on Turkey’s plans to augment its air defense from a non-NATO country comes at a moment when the country’s image in the West and relationship with prominent western countries hit new lows with every passing day.
All these factors support the NATO’s chief’s portrayal of the S-400s problem with Turkey as “a difficult issue” but, at the same time, show that this could turn out to be a much more difficult one.