IT’s Getting Harder for NATO to Hide That Turkey’s Becoming ‘A Thorn in Everyone’s Side’

 In GDI, Defense, Air, Turkey
  • Turkey con­duct­ed its first test of its Russian-made S‑400 at the end of November, flout­ing NATO’s admon­ish­ments about the air-defense sys­tem just days before a sum­mit of the alliance’s lead­ers.
  • The S‑400 sys­tem isn’t oper­a­tional yet, but the saga around it and Ankara’s oth­er activ­i­ties present real and ongo­ing chal­lenges to NATO, despite the alliance’s lead­ers’ attempts to play down grow­ing rifts.
  • Visit Business Insider’s home­page for more sto­ries.

After months of warn­ings from the US and oth­er NATO mem­bers, Turkey test­ed its S‑400s last week, putting the Russian-made air-defense sys­tem, deployed to an air­base near Ankara, up against US-made F‑16 jets.

The S‑400 was deliv­ered to Turkey this sum­mer but has­n’t become oper­a­tional, which Ankara has said will hap­pen in April.

But the sys­tem has been a point of con­tention since before it arrived in Turkey, and despite NATO lead­ers’ asser­tions oth­er­wise, the S‑400 is one of many issues cast­ing a pall over the alliance as it turns 70 years old.

‘We are talking about it constantly’

FILE PHOTO: A new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo

A S‑400 “Triumph” sur­face-to-air mis­sile sys­tem at a mil­i­tary base in Kaliningrad, March 11, 2019. Reuters

NATO is con­cerned about the S‑400’s poten­tial to hin­der inter­op­er­abil­i­ty among its forces, though Turkey says the S‑400 will not be inte­grat­ed with NATO sys­tems. The US is espe­cial­ly wor­ried about its poten­tial to com­pro­mise tech­nol­o­gy on the F‑35 stealth fight­er. It has already kicked Turkey out of the F‑35 pro­gram.

The US also con­tin­ues to threat­en Turkey with sanc­tions over the S‑400 — law­mak­ers from both par­ties, angered by Turkey’s incur­sion in Syria, have called on Trump to impose them.

US offi­cials have often paired crit­i­cism of Turkey for the pur­chase with opti­mism that the dis­pute can be resolved.

“Turkey’s acqui­si­tion of sophis­ti­cat­ed Russian mil­i­tary equip­ment, such as the S‑400, cre­ates some very seri­ous chal­lenges for us, and we are talk­ing about it con­stant­ly,” President Donald Trump said after a meet­ing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on November 13.

“We talked about it today. We’re talk­ing about it in the future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to resolve that sit­u­a­tion,” Trump added. “We’ve asked our sec­re­tary of state and min­is­ter of for­eign affairs and our respec­tive nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­ers to imme­di­ate­ly work on resolv­ing the S‑400 issue.”

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, November 13, 2019 Reuters/Tom Brenner

Asked last week about Turkey’s November 26 tests, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was “con­cern­ing” but that the US was still “hope­ful.”

“We’re still talk­ing to the Turks. We’re still try­ing to fig­ure our way through this thing,” Pompeo added, say­ing the US “made very clear to the Turkish gov­ern­ment our desire to see them move away from … putting into full oper­a­tional­iza­tion the S‑400.”

The cur­rent US pro­pos­al would have “Turkey lock up the S‑400 sys­tems in stor­age, not use them, and allow American tech­ni­cians to occa­sion­al­ly vis­it and ensure that they’re not being used,” Omar Lamrani, senior mil­i­tary ana­lyst at geopo­lit­i­cal analy­sis firm Stratfor, told Business Insider the day after Trump and Erdogan’s meet­ing.

“If Turkey does that, then the US would accept the sale of F‑35s, and they can get the ball rolling in terms of get­ting that rela­tion­ship back on track, sell Patriot mis­siles as a replace­ment, etc.”

Turkey is unlike­ly to go for that.

“They see it as how are they going to explain to their peo­ple, for instance, that, ‘Hey, we bought this S‑400 sys­tem for bil­lions of dol­lars and now we’re just going to lock them up in stor­age for no use,’ ” Lamrani said. “It’s a hard sell for Ankara.”

Erdogan has said he’s open to buy­ing the US-made Patriot air-defense sys­tem, which Trump con­tin­ues to offer, but described “the pro­pos­al to com­plete­ly remove the S‑400s” as “med­dling in our sov­er­eign rights.”

First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

A Russian S‑400 air-defense sys­tem is unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, near Ankara, July 12, 2019. Reuters

Turkey’s pur­chase of a sec­ond S‑400 sys­tem has been delayed for what Ankara describes as tech­ni­cal rea­sons, which may be an effort to keep open room for nego­ti­a­tion, Lamrani said, though Turkish offi­cials expect a deal “before too long,” accord­ing to Russian media.

Turkey may be angling for some sort of agree­ment on the S‑400, but what that would entail, if it’s even pos­si­ble, is unclear, accord­ing to Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fel­low at the Center for a New American Security and a fel­low at Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German non-prof­it research foun­da­tion.

“It’s high­ly unlike­ly that Turkey will aban­don its plans to acti­vate the S‑400 sys­tem in April, espe­cial­ly giv­en that it test­ed the sys­tem only last week,” Rizzo said. “Instead, it will try to find some mid­dle ground with the goal of staving off Western sanc­tions. Unfortunately, that mid­dle ground seems dif­fi­cult to find at the moment.”

‘A thorn in everyone’s side’

Like their polit­i­cal coun­ter­parts, NATO mil­i­tary lead­ers con­tin­ue to empha­size their good rela­tion­ship with Turkey.

“Military-to-mil­i­tary rela­tions with Turkey remain extreme­ly strong, and they are very impor­tant,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach of the UK’s Royal Air Force, head of NATO’s Military Committee, told reporters in Washington in November.

“I con­tin­ue to enjoy a strong rela­tion­ship with the Turkish chief of defense and with Turkish mil­i­tary author­i­ties, and we con­tin­ue to wel­come and thank Turkey for their con­tin­ued sup­port for many NATO com­mis­sions, activ­i­ties, and oper­a­tions,” Peach said.

NATO con­tin­ues to oper­ate ear­ly-warn­ing air­craft from for­ward bases in Turkey, Peach added, and the US con­tin­ues to oper­ate out of Incirlik air base, where a joint US-Turkish team recent­ly car­ried out inspec­tions.

“Of course, pro­cure­ment is a sov­er­eign choice,” Peach said when asked about the S‑400. “What NATO has done through­out its his­to­ry is make clear that we are focused on inter­op­er­abil­i­ty between allies, there­fore equip­ment has to be inter­op­er­a­ble.”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, front left, and Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime min­is­ter, in 2015. Osman Orsal/Reuters

Comments like Peach’s are to be expect­ed from NATO mil­i­tary offi­cials. “They have to say that and they want to say that, because they want to main­tain that rela­tion­ship. But under­neath that, clear­ly there are issues,” Lamrani said.

It’s not the first time the NATO has butted heads with one of its mem­bers, nor is it sur­pris­ing that Turkey is at odds with the rest of the alliance, giv­en its posi­tion between east and west, Rizzo said Monday.

“There’s no ques­tion that Turkey is caus­ing prob­lems for NATO. It’s seen as both strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant but also as a thorn in every­one’s side,” Rizzo said, point­ing to the S‑400 issue, as well as the Syria incur­sion and gen­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slid­ing.

The NATO Leaders Summit in London on December 3 and 4 may end with a group pho­to and pos­i­tive state­ments, but those ges­tures are increas­ing­ly unable to mask fis­sures with­in the alliance.

“There’s no NATO mech­a­nism for pun­ish­ing Turkey (or any oth­er mem­ber for that mat­ter) for actions that it takes, so it will be up to indi­vid­ual mem­bers to find oth­er ways to pres­sure Turkey to bring it back in line,” Rizzo said. “I don’t see the issues with Turkey being solved any time soon. They’ll con­tin­ue to pose strate­gic chal­lenges and upset alliance cohe­sive­ness, which is prob­a­bly the most dam­ag­ing side effect of its var­i­ous activ­i­ties.”

Source: Business Insider (Military & Defense)

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