Turkey’s recent decision to purchase S-400 missile defense system from Russia has sparked a debate in Washington that Ankara has switched sides by becoming a Russian ally. In reality, feeling isolated against a resurgent Russia, Turkey is caving under its historic nemesis. Washington needs to devise astute policies to prevent Ankara’s slide under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fold.
In the Turkish strategic thinking, no country is feared as much as Russia. This is deeply rooted in the history stretching back to the Ottoman Empire. Between the 15th century, when the Ottoman and Russian Empires became neighbors, and 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution, the Turks and Russians fought more than a dozen wars. All of them were instigated — and overall, won — by the Russians.
Ankara continued to fear Moscow throughout much of the 20th century. Turkey entered NATO, becoming a U.S. ally after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin demanded territory from Ankara in 1946.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkish-Russian ties somehow improved, thanks to booming trade. However, the war in Syria, where Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have supported opposing sides — the rebels and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, respectively — once again has pitted Ankara against Moscow.
Furthermore, when Turkey shot down a Russian plane in 2015 that had violated its airspace from Syria, Putin not only slapped Turkey with dramatic economic sanctions, but also signaled that he would start arming the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has been fighting Turkey for decades.
Ankara faces multiple threats in Syria from the Assad regime to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of PKK. To make things worse, since 2015, Washington has relied on the YPG to defeat ISIS, dashing hopes in Ankara that it can rely on the United States to counter the YPG-PKK.
Turkey feels that Washington does not have its back any more. Erdogan was shocked when Turkey asked the United States and other NATO allies for assistance to defend itself against potential Russian aggression in the aftermath of the 2015 plane incident, only to be told that NATO couldn’t help and this was Ankara’s problem. Woefully exposed to the Russian menace, this has led Turkey realize that it should simply start listening to Russia.
With good reason, Erdogan, like Turkish leaders before him, has been keen to avoid escalating the crisis with Putin, slowly folding under him. This is why he apologized to Putin, traveling to St. Petersburg in August 2016, to deliver his regrets regarding the plane incident.
Putin has used this strategic opening well. The Russian leader, who wants to see NATO weakened, knows that one way to enfeeble NATO goes through diluting Ankara’s commitment to the alliance. Accordingly, in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, Putin softened his policy toward Turkey in order to take advantage of growing anti-Western sentiments in Turkey. A plethora of opinion-makers, including members of Erdogan’s party, alleged that the United States and other NATO allies were behind the coup. And while some of these same allies were slow to reach out to Ankara once the coup was put down, Putin called Erdogan the day after and wished him well. Bilateral ties have improved ever since.
Accordingly, in Syria, the Turks and Russians have arrived at a modus vivendi whereby they cut deals and de-conflict their forces on a case-by-case basis. Most recently, Putin gave Ankara a green light for Operation Olive Branch. This resulted in Turkey capturing the Afrin enclave from YPG. In return, Erdogan has stayed quiet while Russia helps the Assad regime bomb civilians in East Ghouta, one of the last remaining rebel-held de-escalation zones.
Meanwhile, Putin has been encouraging Ankara to purchase the S-400 system. During his recent visit to Ankara, the Russian leader announced that he was moving up the delivery of the system by a year from 2020 to 2019, while also presenting the Turks with financing options for the purchase of the $2.5 billion system.
Washington is unhappy. The U.S. Senate has responded, threatening sanctions against Turkey for its decision to purchase of the S-400 system and the arrest of U.S citizens in Turkey.
Such sanctions are likely to serve Putin’s ultimate goal, driving a permanent wedge between Turkey and the United States. What is more, sanctions — which are aimed at punishing Erdogan for his transgressions — will actually help the Turkish president, who faces elections on June 24. Erdogan will cast any pushback against Ankara as pushback against him and Turkey (remember that he’s out to “make Turkey great again”), boosting his popularity at the ballot box.
For the moment, Putin seems to have Turkey exactly where he wants the nation: an upset NATO ally, playing to Russia’s tune.
Washington can reverse Turkey’s slide under Russian influence by devising a clear strategy that addresses Ankara’s deep security concerns over the U.S. relationship with the YPG, such as by securing the Kurdish militia’s withdrawal from the Manbij pocket in northern Syria, abutting Turkey. More importantly, Washington needs to provide Ankara with ironclad guarantees against Russian aggression. Turkey will become a Russian ally in the absence of such policies.
Soner Cagaptay, a senior Beyer Family Fellow at The Washington Institute, where he directs the Turkish Research Program. He is the author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.” He has taught courses at Yale, Princeton University, Georgetown University, and Smith College on the Middle East, Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.