In 2019, Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan bought defence missiles from the Kremlin worth $10 billion USD, much to the annoyance of NATO and its allies. Now, however, Erdogan does not even seem to be using the weapons he acquired.
Western countries were not amused when Turkey bought weapons from Russia last year. Now, for the first time, a dispute between Russia and Turkey is emerging over the transaction.
Where Did the Deal Go Wrong?
So far, Moscow has been able to utilize the S-400 sale to Turkey to sow disputes between Ankara and the United States in particular. After all, Russia’s missiles and their modern reconnaissance technology are not only a potential threat to the alliance but impair Turkey’s membership and the security of NATO on its southeast side.
However, it might be all that Russia is getting out of the deal, as Turkey does not seem inclined to actually use the weaponry after all. In fact, Turkey has declared its intention to make it more difficult for Russians to access the missiles in Turkey – which had been a part of the original deal, as Russian technicians were supposed to train Turkish soldiers on the S-400 and maintain the missiles regularly.
In May, however, Ankara stated that Russian access would be restricted. Moreover, the start of the whole operation would be postponed for the foreseeable future. Russia, it appears, could thus lose the benefit of weakening NATO. This also raises the question of why Erdogan paid Russia $10 billion in the first place.
Turkey and Russia are Not on the Same Page Geopolitically
For one, there has been a dispute with Russia over Syria and the reconquest of the country by dictator al-Assad. The previous week, Russian and Syrian fighter jets again bombed Turkey’s Arab allies in Idlib. In February, more than two dozen Turkish soldiers were killed in a similar attack. Moreover, Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria have also been fragile due to Russia’s intention to give Assad all of Syria. With the temporary non-use of the S-400, Erdogan is thus sending a signal to the Kremlin.
However, arguably even more important than sending a signal to Putin is Turkey’s relationship to the United States and Erdogan’s personal rapport with President Trump. The latter has been somewhat inconsistent. However, ever since Congress has imposed tough sanctions against Turkey, Erdogan has almost no choice but to play nice. So far, Trump has yet to sign the relevant bill, which would likely be a no-brainer if Erdogan would start using the S-400.
The sanctions Congress voted in favor of would have painful consequences for the Turkish economy. Erdogan, however, currently needs every dollar to absorb the Turkish recession and regularly service the foreign debt that continues to be due. If he were not able to facilitate the latter, Turkey would become subject to the strict regulations of the International Monetary Fund for loans again as well.
Understanding Erdogan’s Point-of-View
Naturally, Erdogan is not keen on a strong international nor American influence in Turkey. However, he also is not inclined to become entirely dependent on Russia either. Hence Erdogan has become somewhat of an opportunist, who will move to the one side and back to the other, as long as his moves are not becoming exceedingly detrimental. Acquiring Russian weaponry was consequently merely part of precisely that opportunism. A dead pledge, he may or may not evoke at a given point.
Furthermore, the purchase was fitting, considering the newly established friendship over the last year between Putin and Erdogan, which was also Erdogan’s way of displaying his ever-growing displeasure with the west. Nonetheless, Erdogan would be well advised to cater to the west, as it may save himself additional struggles. After all, the US sanctions and NATO’s dismay are harder to stomach than an angry Kremlin in 2020.