Turkey’s never-ending missile saga

Remember that drama featuring Russia, Turkey and surface-to-air missiles? No, I do not mean the S-400 components making headlines this week. What I have in mind are the events of 1997-98 when the Turkish military and government were up in arms over the transfer of S-300s, the previous generation of Russian air defence missiles, to the Greek Cypriots. 

Fearful that its security interests would be put in jeopardy, Turkey threatened to intercept Russian vessels carrying the S-300 missiles to the divided island.  The Turkish navy and the coastguard routinely boarded ships, including those flying a Russian Federation flag, to search their cargos. After the United States intervened, then Cypriot President Glavkos Clerides agreed the Russian-made weapons would be deployed on the Greek island of Crete, out of range of Turkey. 

What a difference 20-something years makes. These days, it is not Greece and the Greek Cypriots, but Turkey that is aligned with Moscow. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters are cheering the arrival to Turkey of the shipments of S-400 batteries, defence officials in Athens are moving on with the deal ex-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras struck with the United States on upgrading F-16 fighter jets.  

Newly appointed Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos this week had his first meeting with, you guessed right, Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt. The U.S. diplomat hailed Greece as a “pillar of stability in the eastern Mediterranean”.  It is worth remembering that Panagiotopoulos’ predecessor in office, Evangelos Apostolakis, touted the idea of Greece purchasing F-35s, now that Turkey might be out of the international consortium building the next-generation aircraft

The truth of the matter is that the balance of power in the region has changed. Back in the late 1990s, Russia was little more than a nuisance. Having scaled down its naval presence in the Mediterranean already in the mid-70s, all it could hope for was to maintain friendly diplomatic ties with like-minded states and possibly earn much needed hard currency by selling arms. It was hardly a challenger to Western supremacy in the region. 

The Turkish security establishment warily watched Moscow’s overtures to Greece, Cyprus, Syria and Armenia, but hardly anyone in the White House or the Pentagon was sweating much over it. Nowadays, by contrast, Russia has emerged as a powerbroker in Syria as well as a partner of choice for Erdoğan, for reasons that have been discussed at length by pundits and scholars.

Arms sales are probably Russia’s best geopolitical asset. They strengthen ties with leaders and their militaries. They boost the revenues of the military industrial complex, one of the few hi-tech sectors in the Russian economy. The export of weapons accords Russia the coveted status of a near peer to the United States. Most importantly, the risks involved are not overwhelming. 

By selling S-400s to Turkey, China and others, Russia faces no danger of being sucked into quarrels it would rather stay out of. The case in point is Nagorno-Karabakh where Moscow has been arming both parties, one of which happens to be in formal alliance through the so-called Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). 

The S-400 surface-to-air missiles certainly deserve a special mention. After it entered service in 2007 and was made available for export early in the next decade, the system has been purchased by Belarus (entitled to a price discount under a CSTO arrangement), Algeria and China. In 2015-17, Egypt imported S-300VM “Antey 2500" missiles which military experts believe to be, in some respects, superior to the system procured by Turkey. Russian missile technology is in use even in South Korea. 

The Turkish deal is no doubt being monitored closely by the Saudis who are in negotiations with Russia. A prospective sale would open more doors in the highly lucrative Gulf defence market. Not necessarily good news for Iran, proud owner of S-300s, but business is business. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose bromance with Russian President Putin is in full bloom, can certainly attest to that. 

But what is in it for Turkey? Ideally, Ankara would also want to be in the arms trade and reaping the benefits. The story given by the Turkish Presidential Palace is that the agreement with Russia would involve some form of technology transfer. That is highly unlikely judging by statements by Russian officials. At the end of the day, Turkey remains part of NATO and is as much a friend as a competitor in regional politics and potentially in defence markets too. 

At the same time, the risk of Turkey being cut off from the U.S. military industrial complex is all too real. We are yet to see how harsh the U.S. sanctions will be and when they will kick in, given that the S-400s will not be assembled and deployed until next year. Still, if I were a Turk I would strongly hope that Erdoğan has a plan on to how to handle the issue. It is largely of his own making, but the consequences will be for the country as a whole. 


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.