Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed U.S. concerns about his government’s recent decision to buy an S-400 missile defense system from Russia. In a speech Wednesday to mayors from his ruling AK Party, Erdogan said of the U.S., “They went crazy because we made the S-400 agreement. What were we supposed to do? Wait for you? We are taking and will take all our measures on the security front,” he added.
The multibillion-dollar missile purchase has dealt another blow to deeply strained relations with the United States, which spent months lobbying against the deal.
“We have relayed our concerns to Turkish officials regarding the potential purchase of the S-400. A NATO interoperable missile defense system remains the best option to defend Turkey from the full range of threats in its region,” Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael said in a statement.
Turkey has also pushed back over concerns about whether the Russian weapons are compatible with those within NATO. Turkey’s NATO allies have warned Ankara that all members are obligated to use weapons that can be integrated with each other’s systems, and that Russian arms do not meet the criteria. Turkey countered by pointing to fellow NATO member Greece’s purchase several years ago of an S-300 Russian defense system. Erdogan, however, indicated that his country’s controversial deal was in part influenced by current strains with Western allies.
The German government recently decided to curtail some weapons sales to Turkey, citing growing concerns about human rights in light of a failed coup against Erdogan last year. Germany has been critical of mass arrests in Turkey, refused to extradite people whom Turkey accuses of involvement in the attempted coup and demanded the release of German or Turkish-German citizens arrested in recent months.
Ankara maintains that the deal has given Turkey the best value for its money as well as a unique offer of technology transfer. Turkey is rapidly expanding its defense industry and is one of the top 10 weapons producers in the world.
Turkey, Russia getting cozy
Analysts warn that the missile deal between Russia and Turkey is another step by Moscow to weaken the NATO alliance. Russian presidential adviser Vladimir Kozhin appeared to stoke such concerns when he said, “I can only guarantee that all decisions taken on this contract strictly comply with our strategic interests.”
Turkish-Russian relations have been warming since rapprochement efforts were launched last year. Bilateral ties became strained after a Turkish jet downed a Russian bomber operating from a Syrian airbase in November 2015. Following the announcement of the missile deal, Moscow announced the easing of a Turkish tomato import ban, a sanction that had hit thousands of farmers hard.
The Turkey-Russia rapprochement coincides with escalating tensions with Washington. The U.S.’s increasing support for Syrian Kurdish group the YPG, in its fight against Islamic State, has infuriated Turkey because it considers the YPG a terrorist group. Ankara accuses the YPG of being an offshoot of the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The United States and Turkey have listed the PKK as a terrorist organization. Washington, however, has not done so in the case of the YPG.
Additionally, U.S.-Turkey relations are reeling after a U.S. court last week indicted a former head of a Turkish state bank and a former minister with close ties to Erdogan in an Iran sanctions violations case.
“There is a general crisis of confidence,” warns political columnist Semih Idiz of the al-Monitor website, “and now the indictments for Iranian sanction busting will feed into this definitely.”
Erdogan criticized the court’s decision, with a thinly veiled claim it was politically motivated. The Turkish president declared he would take up the issue during his planned trip to New York this week to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
Analysts warn that Erdogan needs to tread carefully given the high stakes involved.
“If Turkey decides to criticize the U.S. on the basis of this indictment being a political decision, that would make the diplomatic relationship more difficult because there is no backtracking from this position,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “Turkey has to face a set of very difficult security challenges in its own neighborhood — the possible [Iraqi] Kurdish independence referendum, the fact that the Syrian crisis is ongoing, the fight against Islamic State is ongoing — therefore Turkey’s ability to address those challenges can only be enhanced if it’s in a position to have better and more solid alliances with its Western partners.”