Russia and Turkey: The Arms Deal that Signals the Age of Pragmatism

by Nikolai Pakhomov

If any single arms deal can capture the shifting nature of Russian cooperation in the post-Cold War era, it is the pending sale of S-400 air defense systems to Turkey that now looks increasingly likely to happen.

The S-400 is an advanced integrated system capable of simultaneously tracking 300 targets and striking them from up to 250 miles away. The fact that Russia would consider shipping them to Turkey—a longtime member of NATO, and once considered to be the alliance’s southeastern bulwark against the Soviet Union—would have been unthinkable even two decades ago.

Yet today the two countries are on the verge of completing a $2.5 billion deal that would pass two Russian-made S-400 systems to Turkey, along with Moscow’s promise to help Ankara build two more at home using Russian technology. On August 25, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News that the last hurdle to finalizing the deal was approval by the executive committee of Turkey’s defense industry.

If indeed finalized, the sale would signal new realities for Russia, Turkey, and Europe in several crucial ways. For one, it would confirm Turkey’s drift away from the West, which Russia has deftly used for its benefit. More broadly, it would underscore just how much the essence of Russian strategic partnerships has evolved from the Cold War period, changing the very nature of its confrontation with the West.

The rift between Turkey and fellow NATO members has been fueled by the latter’s constant criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hardline domestic policies. And it has been exacerbated by a whole range of other setbacks: divisions over Syria; the breakdown of several NATO military cooperation mechanisms involving Turkey; and the ever faint prospect of EU membership for Ankara, despite decades of promises and negotiations. The result has been a shrinking list of benefits that Turkey could hope to gain by working with Brussels and Washington.

Meanwhile, political disagreements have significantly limited the scope of mutually beneficial projects. The EU, and to a lesser degree the United States, frequently voice a desire for their partners to adhere to Western democratic and human rights standards as a precondition for cooperation. This wholesale approach has significantly limited their ability to offer economic stimuli to Turkey—a country crucial for the Caucasus, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East—that would encourage it to act in line with their strategic interests.

Yet international relations are increasingly give-and-take. Russia has been quick to grasp this new reality, which made the partnerships it forges much more practical and results-oriented. It has offered Turkey a partnership where disagreement on some issues does not exclude cooperation on many others, leading to a quickly growing rapport.

These ties have developed along several tracks. Economic links have boosted Turkey’s agriculture and tourism, while energy cooperation enables Turkey to serve as a pivotal player in Russian’s plan to diversify its gas arteries to Europe. And even on Syria, where the two countries have favored opposing sides, their search for mutually acceptable solutions has yielded some moderately effective joint maneuvers.

Russian-Turkish ties are by no means free of tension. Yet despite the many divisions—including Russia’s support for the Kurds, its ban on Turkish tomatoes, and even lingering hard feelings over Turkey’s downing of a Su-24M attack aircraft in November 2015—Russia’s ability to compartmentalize has enabled bilateral ties to proceed.

Now the S-400 deal stands to take bilateral cooperation to a new level. If it signed the agreement, Turkey would become only the second large-scale buyer of S-400 technology. Both the previous buyer, China (which concluded a similar pact in 2015 for $3 billion), and the only other country that has shown active interest in the system, India, have long-standing arms-trade relationships with Russia. It is also worth noting that, in Turkey’s case, the Russian systems would come without NATO’s usual limits on air defense system deployment, allowing Ankara to place them near Armenia or Greece if it so desires.

For Russia, too, the deal will mark a major defense industry breakthrough. For one, in contrast to many Soviet-era clients, Turkey is financially reliable. Even more significant, a sale of this scale could enhance Russia’s position in the global arms market, especially in the Middle East where even more affluent clients abound. After all, if a NATO country can buy Russian S-400s, there is no reason why Gulf monarchies cannot to do the same.

As long as the agreement remains to be finalized, there is a chance that Erdogan can use it as a bargaining chip with the West. There is a precedent for this already. In 2016, NATO and the United States were able to exert sufficient pressure on Turkey to stop it from purchasing Chinese missile systems. However, with complicated political environments both in the United States and the EU, Turkey’s erstwhile partners are highly unlikely to marshal enough resources to induce Erdogan to choose their side.

Nikolai Pakhomov is a contributor to EurasiaNet, from which this is reprinted, with permission. Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Wikimedia Commons)

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  1. Yes, yet another sign of increasing world multipolarity as Russia sells a major arms system to the NATO country with the largest military, one of significant geographical siting. There are other aspects that are interesting.
    1. Russia apparently has far outpaced the U.S. in anti-missile development, now a key development in advanced warfare which has a large offensive missile component.
    2. Politically, Russia is now positioned to side with Turkey in the latter’s upcoming offensives against the (US-supported) Kurds in Iraq and Syria. There is a struggle going on now that will pit the US-supported Kurds against the Russia- and Iran-supported Syria Arab Army for control of the Iraq-Syria border. The US (with Israeli urging) wants to shut down the Iran-dominated arc of power from Iran to the Med. The US will lose, yet again.

  2. @Don Bacon, Erdogan was pissed off when Merkel of Germany announced recently that Turkey’s membership in NATO ought to be delayed! At the same time Putin loves to see daylight amongst the NATO members!
    So it’s a love made in heaven!

  3. Monty- from dozens of conversations I have had with Putin I know him to want people to come together not “see daylight amongst the NATO members”.

  4. It seems that if this agreement is finalized and effective, its significance is both important and multifaceted.Amongst various consequences, supplying such a system has a strategic dimension and shows that Moscow is actively implementing a regional influence and power policy.At least provisionally, AS400 is a game changer. At a bilateral level it creates a mutual dependency,in particular if the agreement includes training,maintenance and,more critically, local manufacturing under licence. This is not a one shot business .
    Another remark :another country is following a somewhat similar path: Iran has been supplied with AS300, while claiming abiliity to build its domestic system which is alleged to be potentially more or less close to AS400 (iranian claims on military performances are often challenged). Russia is apparently gaining ground in its southern flanck while getting less obvious success within its former soviet sphere. The Euroasia union does not seem receiving enthusiastic support from its members who fear falling under Moscow’s domination.

  5. “The EU, and to a lesser degree the United States, frequently voice a desire for their partners to adhere to Western democratic and human rights standards as a precondition for cooperation.”

    And this is why the United States (and, to a much lesser degree the EU, if at all), is known the world over as the very model of hypocrisy and why those who pursue a multipolar world insist upon absolute respect for the sovereignty of other nations – no regime changes, no invasion, slaughter, and destruction of nations on the pretext of “bringing them freedom” – to mention only the most egregious ways the US tramples the democratic potential (e.g., Palestine) and human rights of others.

    While one can certainly disapprove of authoritarian leaders, it’s hard to blame them for their contempt of “Western democratic and human rights standards” when they observe how Washington indulges in Israel and other Middle Eastern vassals the very standards it pretends to uphold. Moreover, one can hardly fail to notice how enthusiastically American political leaders violate those standards at home, selling off their responsibility to govern to the highest corporate bidders; disenfranchising their minorities by purging them from voter rolls; and violating the privacy of ordinary Americans on the pretext of “keeping them safe.”

    If the US truly wanted the nations of the world to embrace democratic and human rights, its primary project would be to stop pretending to spread them abroad and, more important, restore them at home and thus become a model for those standards for other nations to pursue, should they choose it.

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