Three years ago, on 15 July, as F-16s were flying over Istanbul and Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his aides were scrambling to persuade Washington to issue a statement condemning the attempted coup – to no avail. Simultaneously, the coup plotters, calling from Turkey’s chief of staff headquarters, were trying to reach General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – who would not take their call or issue a statement of support. As these dramatic events unfolded, then US secretary of state John Kerry said he hoped for “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey”. But the statement was ambivalent enough to be widely regarded as a general expression of good wishes.
The United States did what most foreign governments do when there is major upheaval in a country: it sat on the fence.
Meanwhile – according to senior Turkish sources – Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, called Erdogan that night to offer him the support of Russian special forces units deployed on a nearby Greek island. The events of the night of the failed coup attempt ushered in a new phase of rapprochement between Turkey and Russia: as far as the Turkish president was concerned, Turkey’s cold war nemesis no longer seemed like a threat.
A large section of Turkish society believes Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric who is Erdogan’s most high-profile foe, to be the mastermind of the coup. And, according to recent polls, most Turks tend to see the US a major threat to their country. Add to that Erdogan’s reliance on the nationalist and “Eurasianist” cadres within the Turkish security establishment – who filled the void left by Gülenists purged in the aftermath of the failed coup – and you have a perfect storm on the southern flank of NATO.
This week’s mediagenic arrival of the Russian S-400 air-defence system in Turkey marks the first significant acquisition of Russian hardware by a NATO country. Despite months of US warnings of sanctions if it went through with the purchase, Turkey flaunted the arrival of S-400 parts, broadcast on Turkish television and tweeted in videos produced by the Turkish and Russian armies. The event was deliberately timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the coup. Erdogan called the deal “the most significant agreement in our history”.
None of this means that Turkey is pivoting towards Russia. The relationship between the two states is not an institutional one but stems from the friendship between Erdogan and Putin. If the ebb and flow of Turkish-Russian relations in the past 300 years is any indication, it is likely that this round of rapprochement will also end in disappointment, causing Turks to run to the West – as they did in the Crimean War and during the twentieth century. It was Russian designs on eastern Turkey and the Bosporus that led Ankara to consolidate its burgeoning alliance with the US and apply for NATO membership soon after the second world war. Turkey needs to have a good relationship with Russia to serve its energy needs and to operate as it wishes to in Syria. But Turks are already facing quiet disappointment in their dealings with Russians on Syria, particularly Idlib. Russia wants to do all it can to restore the Assad regime’s influence in this opposition stronghold, while Turkey is pushing back against the regime’s advances by supporting opposition groups.
That said, the Turkish government seems determined to remain equidistant between Russia and US in the near future, despite the fact that Turkey’s economy and institutions are anchored in its century-old Western orientation.
More than anything, the whole S-400 saga reflects the emergence of Erdogan’s “New Turkey”, as his supporters like to point out. This New Turkey is a regional power that wants to see itself as an emerging global power. It may lack the capacity to fulfil its ambitions but, in an era of great power competition, it cannot resist the urge to try anyway. No longer a loyal ally of the West, Turkey now has its own designs on the Middle East and Africa. Above all, Ankara’s resentment of the “hierarchical” tone of its relations with the European Union and the US makes it want to pursue an independent policy in other parts of the world.
How the West will respond to this is anyone’s guess. There is much head-scratching in the US administration and Congress over how to respond to Turkey’s overtures to Russia – as policymakers try to dissuade Ankara (and other NATO capitals) from strengthening their defence ties with Moscow, without either destroying Turkey’s economy stability or pushing the country further towards Russia. The US has already announced that it will jettison Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme.
Yet, as the debate on Turkey within the Trump administration continues, it is unclear what the rest of the US response will be. With the S-400 purchase, Erdogan gambled on US President Donald Trump’s ambivalence towards both sanctioning Russia and penalising Turkey. Trump’s bromance with Erdogan is also a factor – as are the arguments of those in the US administration who believe that, in light of US strategic interests in Europe and the Middle East, Turkey is “too big to fail”. Trump made clear at the G20 meeting in Japan last month and in remarks this week that he is sympathetic to Ankara’s arguments and reluctant to sanction Turkey, even though Congress is determined to do so. So far, the US administration has not announced the set of sanctions on Turkey that the State Department has prepared and that Congress is calling for. By law, Trump cannot avoid targeting Turkey with measures under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, but he can delay them for some time and make sure that they are light enough not to upset Turkish markets.
Whatever course of action he takes, the tussle over the S-400 is unlikely to be the end of the saga.
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