Turkxit Time?

The deployment of Russian S-400 missiles in Turkey would have momentous consequences for Ankara’s relations with NATO, notes Marc Pierini for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The controversy surrounding Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system has been brewing for months and may soon be coming to a head. The strategic and technical aspects of the move, as well as its wider regional geopolitical context, have been amply documented. But what would the longer-term military and political implications be of deployment of Russian S-400s?

Several commentators have speculated that Turkey could cancel the S-400 deal after the country’s March 31 municipal elections. However, that would mean Ankara’s heavily damaging its budding relationship with Moscow. Conversely, if the S-400 system is delivered and activated, sanctions could be imposed by Washington—from delaying deliveries of the F-35 to excluding Turkey from its production chain. Beyond these uncertainties, a deployment would entail deep military and political repercussions.

Some of the hypothetical questions raised by such developments would be the following: How could Turkey act in solidarity with NATO in case of an eventual crisis with Russia in eastern Ukraine or the Baltic while hosting Russian missiles in two air force bases? How could it keep critical U.S. and NATO assets deployed at three major Turkish bases—Incirlik, Konya, and Malatya, among others facilities—while having Russian assets deployed at other bases?

In case of an acute crisis with Tehran, would Turkey be able to fulfill its commitments to NATO while hosting Russian S-400 missiles and partnering with Russia and Iran in Syria? If suddenly drawn into the crisis, would Turkey call NATO for help or use its Russian missiles? Could Moscow retain “veto power” over the use of the S-400s in such circumstances?

Ultimately, would NATO’s trust in Turkey’s military command—already dented by the deep political purge since the coup attempt of July 2016—vanish as the country is seen to be strategically aligning with Russia? At the very least, NATO operational procedures would have to be scrutinized. Some analysts, such as those at the Center for American Progress, argue that NATO should explore steps “to extricate Turkey from certain activities aimed at countering Russia, such as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and certain intelligence sharing arrangements.” More generally, would NATO continue to include Turkish soldiers in its operations to counter Russian military activities around Europe? In other words, would Turkey’s participation in NATO activities continue uninterrupted?

The West’s trust in Turkey has already been cracked, not only on missile procurement but also on other important subjects. These include differences over the anti-Islamic State coalition, gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, the transit of Russian gas through Turkey, Russian political interference in the domestic politics of European countries, a Turkish narrative calling Western leaders “enemies of Islam,” and differences with regard to societal choices in Turkey incompatible with EU and Western standards.

The eastern Mediterranean and Middle East are undergoing tectonic changes. Consecutive U.S. presidents have demonstrated a lower proclivity for the United States to remain the regions’ peacekeeper. Russia and Iran, in turn, have shown a strong desire to become perennial military actors there and beyond. Until now, Turkey has been part of the post-World War II, post-Cold War defense network of the North Atlantic alliance in the region. However, its forthcoming decisions on missile defense will constitute a test for the Trump administration’s foreign policy, for the foreign policy of the EU with regard to its neighborhood, and not least for Middle Eastern countries as well. This is no small development.

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