Erdoğan’s S-400 saga is not a pretty picture

April has passed - the month in which Turkey’s Russian-made S-400 air defence system, deployed last summer, was supposed to be up and running. There has been no indication that Turkey has unpacked the system’s missiles or used its radars, which NATO has said are incompatible with its systems and therefore unacceptable.

But Turkey’s presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın said last week that the system’s activation was only delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will move forward in due course.

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to United States President Donald Trump last week along with a large shipment of COVID-19 medical supplies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to remind the NATO alliance of Turkey’s importance.

Officials from Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been quiet about the S-400s for months, partly due to the pandemic that has taken over the news agenda.

Turkey began discussing the S-400s in the summer of 2016, only weeks after the attempted coup in July, 2016, which the Turkish government blamed on the Gülenist Islamist movement, and its leader Fethullah Gülen. So far, no evidence has linked Gülen directly to the coup, though there is little question over how the secretive group was deeply involved in the coup attempt.

Since Turkey began debating the S-400 purchase, nearly four years ago, all of the country’s main economic and democratic indicators have deteriorated. Ahval has been covering these worsening conditions of the country day by day since its inception in late 2017.

The procurement of the S-400s not only coincided with a setback in living standards for Turkey’s citizens, it has also worsened the country’s security situation and was a factor in Turkey’s inability to obtain U.S. air cover support for its Idlib operations, which resulted in the deaths of scores of Turkish soldiers who were killed in late February.

Turkey was also excluded from NATO’s F-35 fighter jet consortium, which meant abundant time and resources were wasted, as well as losing out on nearly $10 billion of profit, in part due to the deployment of the Russian made system. 

The U.S. dollar, which was traded at around 3 Turkish liras after the 2016 coup attempt, now trades over 7 liras. This slide came about despite tens of billions of dollars in central bank reserves being thrown into a monetary black hole to prevent the decline in the lira’s value.

Erdoğan, who used up most of the country’s foreign reserves to put out the fires caused by political crises of his own making and marches towards possibly one of the most severe economic and social crises in Turkey’s history, seems to have been blindsided over the country’s squandered resources.

In March, Erdoğan launched a national donation campaign to help low-income people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. But so far the total donations appear to be next to nothing per capita, if one does not count contributions by public banks and those forcibly deducted from peoples’ salaries.

Of course, Turkey’s current economic situation is not because of the purchase of the S-400 missile system alone. The purchase was one of several major steps taken during the same period, but it was one of the most important ones.

The acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system was the most concrete evidence of Erdoğan’s worsening relationship with the United States over the last four years, which started to sour during the Gezi protests of 2013, and further eroded with the December corruption probe later that year, the Obama administration’s cooperation with Syrian Kurdish YPG forces, and with the July 15 coup attempt.

A search in the archives shows Washington’s “concerned” responses to news about the S-400s in 2017, with the tone gradually becoming sharper.

Erdoğan cited two reasons for the purchase back in those days: that Turkey was not offered technology transfer and joint manufacturing for the U.S.-made Patriot missiles, and that he received no discount.

Today, it is clear that there are no joint manufacturing guarantees for the S-400s either. Military experts familiar with Moscow’s working conditions had said back then, as well, that there should be no expectation of such technology transfers from the Russians. It is impossible for the Turkish government to not be privy to this information. Similarly, there is no indication that suitable conditions were obtained from Russia regarding the weapons, which cost a total of $2.5 billion.

During Turkey’s state of emergency period, declared following the failed coup, Erdoğan held elections that would allow him to run for president on a nationalist and anti-American platform, and went on to win those elections in 2017 and 2018.

Erdoğan’s slow turn towards Russia and away from the West was made possible through his loyal ministers and team. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, appointed in 2014 and constantly subject to rumours of an imminent portfolio shift, undoubtedly owes his long tenure as a minister to his loyalty to Erdoğan’s palace and his ability to adjust messages to the desired tone.

His Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu made conspiracy allegations against the United States after the coup attempt, blaming the plot squarely on Washington. Erdoğan’s spokespeople and speech writers crafted messages as required with increasingly anti-Western tones and sometimes with anti-NATO sentiment.

Trump taking office in early 2017 was to Erdoğan’s added benefit. Every successive president of the United States has tried to gain points in foreign policy by saying they had mended a formerly deteriorating relationship, to fluff up their successes.

Obama had focused on Middle East relations, which had fallen apart during George W. Bush’s term, and Turkey had been one of the countries whose luck grew. Obama’s second term is remembered as the one in which his relationship with Erdoğan fell apart completely. In the Obama administration’s last two years, then-vice president and now presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden took over “the Erdoğan case” to engage him, whether during Erdoğan’s United Nations visits or during most phone calls. 

Erdoğan, angry at Obama over many reasons, quickly found he had anti-Obama sentiment in common with the new president Donald Trump. They bonded and Trump dismissed demands by U.S. institutions to punish Turkey over the S-400 purchase.

During a bilateral meeting in Kyoto, Japan in the summer of 2019, Trump repeated Erdoğan’s talking point that the Obama administration had refused to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, who therefore had no other option but to request the S-400 system from Russia. 

However, we are now in another U.S. election season and it appears that the Erdoğan government might have come full circle to seek warmer ties and financial aid from Washington.

At a G20 emergency virtual meeting in late March, Erdoğan told his fellow heads of state that international swap agreements between central banks in response to the pandemic should be extended to cover all G20 countries to boost confidence in global markets.

However, it has been over a month since then and there is no sign of the Federal Reserve extending such a crucial line to Ankara. According to economist Uğur Gürses, it would be a surprise to see the Fed take such a step since Turkey’s Central Bank does not meet any of its criteria. The Federal Reserve has swap lines with countries that have a relationship of “mutual trust” with the United States and the highest credit standards, Richmond Fed President Thomas Barkin said on Wednesday, which appeared to rule out a possible swap line to Turkey.

We still do not know whether Washington would acquiesce to the notion that, in return for opening swap lines to Ankara, Turkey will not unbox the S-400s. Whatever happens, it is not a pretty picture for Ankara. Either Turkey cancels the activation of the S-400 system or it loses potential U.S. financial support during its current dire monetary situation.

The story of Turkey’s quest for S-400s over the last four years is not a pretty one overall. Turkey has been much more aggressive against its peaceful dissidents, it has followed an increasingly anti-Western policy, and its governing style has been growing ever more undemocratic since the purchase was announced. Turkey appears more like a Shanghai Five member than a NATO or the Western alliance country. 

Minorities – whether Kurds, Alevis or Christians - have fewer rights and less visibility since the decision to procure the S-400 weapons. The Turkish judiciary has become a tool of Erdoğan’s to intimidate and arrest dissidents. Transparency is all but gone. The opposition, which comprises more than 50 percent of the population, is being terrorised. 

We are now facing another U.S. election year, this time under extraordinary circumstances during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Erdoğan is now sending signals indicating he may be once again ready to warm relations with the Trump administration. 

Trump’s second term, or Biden’s first, may produce vastly different relations for both countries.

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