Is the Turkish-Russian S-400 Missile Deal Sabre Rattling Among Superpowers?

April 24, 2019

Turkey could take possession of the Russian S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile system by 2020 in a $2.5 billion deal. What is this doing to the NATO alliance where Turkey is a member? It is an 'unfreezing' of Cold War geopolitics, says Professor Richard Sakwa

Vice President Mike Pence expressed his dismay with Turkey's decision to purchase an S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system from Russia, revealing just how much this arms deal is an existential threat to NATO and U.S. dominance.

“Turkey's purchase of a $2.5 billion S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia poses great danger to NATO and to the strength of this alliance,” Pence said. “Turkey must choose: Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in the history of the world? Or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”

Richard Sakwa told The Real News Network's Sharmini Peries that Pence's assertion about the alliance is correct, it's just outdated by a couple decades: “Vice President Pence had a point. He did talk about NATO as the most successful alliance in history. The thing is that it was successful until 1989-91 at the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and it had achieved its goals,” Sakwa said.

Moreover, Turkey, like other countries, is slowly realizing the limits of NATO and kicking back against U.S. control, and reinstatement of Cold War-like policy.

“Since [the end of the Cold War], now it's over 25-30 years, it's been looking for a role to play and what it's managed to do is to perpetuate Cold War attitudes and ultimately facilitated what I call—and others call—not just a new Cold War but a substantive, second Cold War. But in that second Cold War, the actors and the patterns of politics will change.”

While Turkey is not a founding NATO member, it did join soon after its founding, and now is beginning to find the strategic options within NATO too limiting. Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu all but said this last week when he declared the Russian S-400 sale “a done deal” because the U.S. failed to guarantee sale of its Patriot Missile Defense System.

Sakwa explained that Turkey “feels threatened” in the Middle East, especially since the Iraq War and as Israel has gained power. Given strained Israel and Turkey relations, it makes sense they would want to defend themselves and would go to Russia, who guaranteed a sale when the U.S. could not.

“They do feel they need a defensive capacity and as we heard they didn't manage to get the Patriot missile defense system,” Sakwa said. “There's also a technical issue there is that general view—and I'm no expert—that the S-400 is technically the best in the world. And so if they're going to pay so much money they'd like to get the best in the world.”

More broadly, Turkey's S-400 purchase from Russia and U.S. panic represents a shift in geopolitical relations and the start of “a far more fluid situation where people won't buy into [a] particular model of politics,” Sakwa said.

“This is a sign that that post-Cold War world, in which the existence and continuation and enlargement of NATO effectively meant it tried to freeze the situation of U.S.-led dominance after 1991, and that dominance, that freezing moment, is beginning to unfreeze,” Sakwa said. “It may have given advantages and benefits at a certain point but all things, including the world's most successful military alliance, will come to an end one day, and perhaps these are the first signs of that coming end.”


Is the Turkish-Russian S-400 Missile Deal Sabre Rattling Among Superpowers?

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES The NATO member Turkey has decided to purchase S-400 defense systems from Russia. As you can imagine, this is ruffling some feathers in Washington D.C. Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Turkey’s relations with the U.S. have been strained over the last few years. The newest crisis seems to be quite severe. Turkey has decided to purchase S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, and the U.S. is considering refusing to sell the new F-35 stealth bombers to Turkey in retaliation. It is not just because U.S. arms manufacturers want Turkey’s defense procurement budget, but more so the suspicion that S-400 missile defense systems can somehow spy on NATO technology and send information to the Russian military. Vice President Mike Pence expressed his dismay at Turkey’s decision to buy S-400s in an interview last week. Let’s watch.

MIKE PENCE Turkey’s purchase of a $2.5 billion S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, poses great danger to NATO and to the strength of this alliance. Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner of the most successful military alliance in the history of the world? Or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?

SHARMINI PERIES And here is the Turkey’s Foreign Minister responding to these questions that Mike Pence poses.

JOURNALIST When you meet with Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Bolton who you’re scheduled to meet with here in Washington, will you tell them that Turkey is still going to go through with this purchase of the Russian system, the S-400…

MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU Definitely, definitely. It’s a done deal. It’s a done deal and even President Trump admitted on the phone that it was the mistake of the previous administration of the United States that they couldn’t sell Patriots to us. This is not a choice for us. It is…

JOURNALIST But the offer is still on the table, is it not?

MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU No this is a done deal.

JOURNALIST But the offer of Patriots is still being made…

MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU We received a recent proposal from the United States, but it doesn’t guarantee that the United States will be able to sell Patriots to Turkey because we couldn’t get it for the last 10 years. That’s why we had to buy from Russia.

SHARMINI PERIES Joining us now to discuss the heat that this generates and beyond is Richard Sakwa. Richard is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. His most recent book is Russia’s Futures, published by Polity Press. Richard, good to have you here.

RICHARD SAKWA Hello.

SHARMINI PERIES Alright, Richard. This is a pretty audacious move on the part of Turkey to purchase these weapons from Russia, particularly because they are a NATO member. Is this pointing to some crisis within NATO?

RICHARD SAKWA I think it reflects the larger crisis of, if you like, the Atlantic system. Vice President Pence had a point. He did talk about NATO as the most successful alliance in history. The thing is that it was successful until 1989-91 at the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War. It had achieved its goals and since then— it’s now over 25, nearly 30 years— it’s been looking for a role to play. What it’s managed to do is to perpetuate Cold War attitudes and ultimately facilitated what I call and others call, not just a new Cold War, but a substantive second Cold War. But in this second Cold War, the actors and the patterns of politics will change. And this is what’s happening with Turkey today. It’s been obviously not quite a founding member, but a member who joined a couple of years after NATO was established in 1949. And it’s beginning to find the strategic options within NATO too limiting. That’s why it’s establishing not just this sale with Russia for S-400s, but also close energy links and constant partnership over Syria.

SHARMINI PERIES Richard, the speculation that S-400 systems can somehow gather information on NATO weapon systems and send it over to Russia— is this fact or is it just paranoia?

RICHARD SAKWA Nowadays, the sophistication of these missile and other systems is so intense that—you know, I’m a non-expert— there will be legitimate fears that once you have an S-400, it’s enormous power, basically it can track objects— 10-15 objects, 400-500 kilometers away. If it can do that, who knows what other powers and facilities it may have. So clearly by purchasing these, it weakens, just like the political or military, but a technical solidarity of NATO. So clearly, it is a legitimate fear that this could be the case.

SHARMINI PERIES Richard from the point of view of Turkey, what does it have to gain from buying a defensive system like S-400, rather than the offensive F-35?

RICHARD SAKWA In a sense that— I mean there’s plenty of planes they could buy— they’re not commensurate at the moment. They needed this defense system because clearly Turkey feels threatened. The region, the Middle East, is highly unstable, has been destabilized far worse over the last decades. I was going to say the war in Iraq has unleashed powerful forces, but even before that it was certainly not a peaceful zone. Israel’s position has strengthened, and obviously relations between Israel and Turkey are not good. So they do feel they need a defensive capacity and as we heard, they didn’t manage to get the Patriot missile defense system. There’s also a technical issue. There is that general view and I’m no expert, that the S-400 is technically the best in the world. And so, if they’re going to pay so much money, they’d like to get the best in the world. There have been issues, teething issues with the F-35 plane. I’m sure they’re going to sort them out. The U.S. will deal with it, but at the moment the F-35 has been long-delayed in its development. Maybe it really would be a shock to the NATO system if the Turks in the end decide to buy the SU-35, which is one of the world’s best planes as well. So what we are seeing is, as I mentioned before, an unfreezing of the post-Cold War situation. Turkey perhaps appears to be in the vanguard of this shifting alliance system.

SHARMINI PERIES Richard, this is quickly becoming a geopolitical issue. Russia is selling S-400 systems not only to Turkey, but India and of course Syria. And S-300 systems were actually used in Syria, which helps to protect their President Assad. So all this is going on with NATO at the center of this, which is supposed to be the most powerful alliance in the world. What does this mean?

RICHARD SAKWA There’s always been an intense fight for arms markets, and Russia is more or less maintaining its position, second largest arms seller in the world and sometimes slightly eclipsed, but basically after the United States who is by far the biggest arms seller leader by far. By purchasing weapons, it’s clearly a statement of an intent of geopolitical pluralism. When China or Turkey buys such a system, it’s clearly a sense that it has this choice and it isn’t subject to the demands of a single power. So what we’re now seeing is through arms sales and a diversity of arms sales, India you mentioned and other countries who refuse to be bound by the discipline of NATO. Suddenly Turkey even as a NATO member, Turkey will not be bound by NATO’s discipline.

SHARMINI PERIES Richard, of course this means that Russia is increasing its influence around the world because it’s not just the sale of these arms. You then have training. You have maintenance of this equipment. There’s ongoing sale of ammunition and so on as well that comes with this influence. Tell us more about how this falls out in terms of geopolitical relations.

RICHARD SAKWA You’re quite right about arms. Don’t forget that also Russia is supplying and building a nuclear power station, a multi-block nuclear power station for Turkey, which means a long-term commitment— 30, 40, 50 years for maintenance, for supply, for raw material, and the coal supply, and so on, and indeed pipelines. So it’s a very long-term commitment. As you say, if you buy any equipment like a pipeline, it shifts the geopolitical, geo-economic balance for decades ahead. So this is a sign that that post-Cold War world which the existence, continuation and enlargement of NATO effectively meant it tried to freeze the situation of U.S. led dominance after 1991. And that dominance, that freezing moment, is beginning to unfreeze and we’re beginning to get a far more fluid situation where people won’t buy into that particular model of politics. It may have given advantages and benefits at a certain point, but all things including the world’s most successful military alliance will come to an end one day. Perhaps these are the first signs of that coming end.

SHARMINI PERIES Richard, in terms of the immediate future and U.S. relations with Turkey, what is going to be the fallout of this? Erdogan just lost the capital city in terms of the elections. Is he still a strong man? And is he able to maintain this kind of distance with the United States and still survive as a NATO member?

RICHARD SAKWA There’s two things: First, there’s major tension with the United States over the endgame in the Syrian conflict. As you know, the United States has been supporting the Kurdish forces to the east of the Euphrates River, whereas Turkey considers the fighters, Y.P.G. etc., as no more than another form of their long-term enemy, the P.K.K, the Kurdish forces in the east of their country. So that’s a big contradiction. What in terms of politics and what this means in terms of the alliance, it’s just yet another sign of this fluidity. Erdogan is weakened by the loss not only of Istanbul and Ankara. If those victories of the opposition are confirmed, it means that his nearly 25-year dominance, certainly nearly 20 years as leader of the country, is becoming a bit more shaky. Even as his formal constitutional powers increase, politically he’s becoming more vulnerable.

SHARMINI PERIES Richard, in terms of NATO and the alliance— and we can’t talk about that without talking about Europe and Germany and other critical members— how are they receiving Turkey’s positioning with Russia?

RICHARD SAKWA Well Turkey is one of the key partners in the management of the migration issue. There are several million Syrians in Turkey. The European Union is providing large funds in terms of billions of euros for support in camps and so on, so that they don’t try to come to Europe. It’s an essential partner in that respect. Also it’s clear that Turkey’s E.U. ambitions will not be fulfilled anytime soon. And in fact, I don’t think that Turkey believes it will join in the next decade or two, if not longer. And it’s beginning to look elsewhere for partnerships. As for Germany and the European Union itself, it’s had how many summits now— two, three, four on Brexit? Macron came to power with ambitious ideas on intensifying unity amongst the Euro partners, the 19 countries in the eurozone, also for greater autonomy of Europe in defense matters. All these things are going forwards, but much more slowly than anticipated and there has not been established the traditional Franco-German locomotive at the heart of Europe. Until Brexit is solved, which may not be anytime soon, then Europe is stuck in one spot and it’s not going to go forwards. The big thing now are the European Parliament elections next month in May 2019. And it’s almost certain that so-called populists, mostly of the right and some of the left, will have a much larger position and possibly even a dominant position. That really will be a game changer in Europe because European Parliament chooses at a moment if they can get their list candidate to be the nominated successor to the existing head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as the team at the head of the European Commission. So Europe is going to be bound up for the next year or so in domestic matters.

SHARMINI PERIES I’ve been speaking with Professor Richard Sakwa. His most recent book is Russia’s Futures with Polity Press. I thank you so much for joining us.

RICHARD SAKWA My pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.