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Why won’t Turkey abandon the S-400 deal with Russia?

February 20, 2019 at 9:04 am

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) sees Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) off after they attend a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (not seen) and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (not seen) at ‘Rus Sanatorium’ following the 4th trilateral summit on Syria between Turkey – Iran – Russia, on 14 February 2019 in Sochi, Russia. [Turkish Presidency / Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Handout – Anadolu Agency]

Washington’s first deadline for Turkey to respond to its offer to buy the Patriot missile defence system passed last Friday with no progress made. Only one day after the deadline, US Vice President Mike Pence raised the issue once again with Ankara regarding Turkey’s recent deal to acquire the Russian S-400 missile defence system. In his speech at the Munich Security Conference last Saturday, Pence threatened Turkey, without mentioning it explicitly, when he said, “We’ve also made it clear that we will not stand idly by while NATO Allies purchase weapons from our adversaries. We cannot ensure the defence of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”

The Americans agreed recently to offer Turkey the Patriot missile deal, worth about $ 3.5 billion, but linked its agreement to do so on several conditions, including the need for Ankara to abandon the S-400 deal with Russia. The Turks initially welcomed the offer, but rejected the conditions tied to it. They also linked any possible agreement to the extent that it serves Turkey’s interests, especially regarding the timeframe offered for delivery of the system. The government in Ankara also stipulated the need for the deal to include the transfer of technology to Turkey as well as financial provisions to help pay for it.

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According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the US responded positively to the possibility of delivering the system early, but it has not yet responded to the matters of joint production and financial arrangements. Since the official deadline for the response to the American offer will expire entirely at the end of March, this means that the debate on the topic will continue for another few weeks, at least. This will occur amid American threats to stop the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara and the possibility of imposing sanctions if it does not back down from the S-400 deal with Russia.

However, Turkey believes that removing it from the F-35 production programme will lead to higher costs for the Americans, and it will also hamper delivery times to many allies. More importantly, it will damage Washington’s already shrinking credibility. The Trump administration’s arrogant, exploitative behaviour only strengthens Turkey’s commitment to its deal with Russia, as it seems that pulling out is nearly impossible under the current circumstances.

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There are three possible reasons why Ankara will not abandon the S-400 deal with Russia. First, the lack of trust in Washington’s sincerity, especially as the latter has not kept its promises on several occasions, most recently by threatening to cancel the delivery of the F-35s. Ankara believes that the US will be able to cancel the Patriot deal, threaten to do so or use it as a means to blackmail Turkey if and when it deems it necessary to do so. Furthermore, the lack of a financial incentive makes it very costly for Turkey to buy the Patriot system from the US, especially in the current economic climate. Unless Washington discusses this aspect of its deal, the Patriot offer will not be attractive from a purely financial point of view, neither on its own or when compared with Russia’s S-400 offer.

Finally, Washington has so far refused to transfer the technology to Turkey as part of the potential deal with Ankara. If this is not done, Turkey will not achieve its declared aims, and so it would be taking the Patriot system for purely political reasons in order to be balanced in the relationship between Russia and America. When all things are considered, therefore, it is almost certain that Ankara will stick to the S-400 deal with Russia.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Arab on 19 February 2019

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.