INTIMIDATING WEAKER COUNTRIES is normal behavior for great powers. For most of the 20th century, the United States was strong enough to keep allies in line and rivals at bay. Today, however, other countries are not so easily intimidated. Many have lost confidence in the US. At the same time, competing powers have emerged. This volatile mix has led Turkey and the US to the brink of a major confrontation. Russia is watching gleefully.
Turkey has announced plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, the S-400. Some in Washington consider this intolerable. Turkey must cancel the S-400 deal, US officials insist, and agree to buy the American-made Patriot system instead. The Turks are not budging. “Nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey recently asserted.
The S-400 batteries could begin arriving in Turkey within weeks. If that happens, the resulting strategic crackup could have shattering effects throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Like all members of the NATO alliance, Turkey is required to accept military and security policies set in Washington. In recent years it has refused to do so. War in Syria may have been the breaking point. American forces there have armed, trained, and advised Kurdish militias. Turkey finds this intolerable.
Kurdish fighters in Syria are closely allied with Kurds inside Turkey who have been waging a campaign against the Turkish state for decades. Turkey now sees the US as having embraced its mortal enemy. Buying the S-400 from Russia is payback.
Erdogan has pushed his country off the path toward democracy and imposed authoritarian rule. Thousands of real or imagined critics of his government have lost their jobs or been imprisoned. Turkey has also developed the habit of arresting Americans for use as political hostages. Yet the United States could overlook all of this — and in fact it has, maintaining decent relations with Turkey despite growing friction. Buying weaponry from Russia, though, is a far deeper breach. Some in Washington call it a “deal-breaker,” meaning that it will set off a deep rupture between two supposed allies that have conflicting ambitions in the Middle East.
Turkish leaders believe that since the US has refused to respect Turkey’s red line — no support for Kurds in Syria — it is no longer a reliable partner. They want an air defense system to serve their own security goals, which they fear the US will not support. Turkey may deploy the S-400 to protect its first nuclear power plant, now under construction, from an air attack like the one Israel launched against Iraq in 1981. It may want to protect Turkish ships exploring undersea gas tracts claimed by Cyprus — a close ally of Israel and the United States.
If the S-400 deal goes forward, consequences could be severe. Turkey would likely be cut out of the F-35 fighter jet project, in which it is deeply invested, and denied delivery of the 100 F-35s it has ordered. Before this crisis broke out, the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, estimated that “F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion” and predicted that “the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
Some in Washington still hope that the Russia-Turkey deal will be cancelled. Erdogan appears to have a good relationship with his fellow autocrat in the White House, and the two are scheduled to meet at the G-20 summit in Japan later this month. Even in the unlikely event that Erdogan could be persuaded to change course, however, President Vladimir Putin of Russia will be reluctant to let him cancel the deal. Russian forces can do immense damage to Turkish interests in Syria, and Erdogan does not want to run that risk.
American concerns about the deal are serious. The S-400 could allow Russia to tap into security features embedded in the F-35 and other NATO warplanes. More important, Turkey would be signaling that it is no longer willing to obey when NATO gives an order. The alliance has faced dissidence before. France withdrew from the NATO military command in the 1960s, and Greece supported Yugoslavia when NATO bombed it in 1999. Nor is NATO a club of democracies; Greece and Portugal were members in good standing while they were under dictatorships. Turkey’s challenge to NATO, however, is uniquely provocative.
This looming crisis is not simply about Turkey, Russia, and the United States. It is also about NATO. The alliance was created to resist the Soviet Union, but instead of dissolving itself at the end of the Cold War, it set off on promiscuous expansion. The United States uses NATO as the main instrument in its campaign against Russia. Given the alliance’s unwieldy size, it was inevitable that members would begin to rebel and seek to make their own security policies — and that Russia would jump to take advantage.
Congress and the Pentagon, always eager to retaliate instead of conciliate, are in a mood to punish Turkey. This would be falling into Putin’s trap. He is solidifying Russia’s new role as a Middle East power broker by hooking a big Turkish fish. The US would be foolish to carve and serve that fish to Putin’s liking. Instead it should recognize Turkey’s unique strategic value and seek compromise rather than pushing it fully into the arms of the Russian bear.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.