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The S400 U-turn
Published in Ahram Online on 14 - 09 - 2021

The day before he officially recognised the Armenian genocide, which is commemorated on 24 April, US President Joe Biden called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to notify him. That was the first official phone call he made to his Turkish counterpart after taking office. He later personally met with Erdogan on the fringe of the NATO summit in Brussels, but subsequently dismissed the importance of the meeting.
Erdogan was forced to try other avenues to soften Washington's shoulder, which his own actions had provoked. He went knocking on the doors of US allies in the Middle East he had previously alienated, in the hope that this would send the right message. In addition to offering Turkish military services to help the US extricate itself from Afghanistan, he also reiterated its desire to join the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) connected to the European Union's security and defence policy.
Still, he would also have to make some gestures related to his arms deals with Moscow. This, he knew, was unavoidable in order to press reset with Washington. In this regard, the Anatolian air is thick with rumours of a frost between Ankara and Moscow against the backdrop of the former's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile systems which have been a main source of tension between the US and its European allies in NATO. It appears that Turkey is looking for a way to back out of the S-400 deal. On 24 August, observers cited sources close to Erdogan as saying that Turkey was not ready to buy more S-400s. This contradicted a previous Russian statement that Moscow and Turkey were on the verge of signing a deal for a second consignment of the controversial weapons system. A senior Turkish official said Russia was trying to poison Turkey's relations with the United States by releasing misleading statements.
If so, it looks like the Russians had a second go at this. In late August, Alexander Mikheyev, who heads the Russian arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, said the second batch of S-400s would soon be heading for Turkey.
The announcement reignited concerns in Turkey that Ankara was lured into a trap when it signed onto the S-400 deal, a prospect the opposition had warned of from the outset. "[W]hat many feared could now be turning out to be true. Indications are emerging that Moscow may be using the S-400 issue to apply pressure on Turkey at a time when Ankara is trying to improve its ties with the West," writes Samih Idiz in Al-Monitor of 3 September under the title, "Is Moscow using the S-400 against Turkey?"
French President Emmanuel Macron had warned Turkey, a fellow NATO member, against going through with the purchase, stressing that the S-400s are incompatible with NATO defence systems. At the time he said that members of the same defence organisation cannot go out and buy equipment that goes against interoperability nor carry out unilateral actions that conflict with the collective interests of the alliance.
Idiz cited sources close to the Turkish defence industry who denied that there was a second S-400 deal in the works. One was a defence source who told BBC Turkish: "This is a topic that can be discussed at any time, but we have no such request at this stage." Referring to talks between Ankara and Washington on cooperation in Afghanistan, the same source said, "the Russian side is either declaring its intention or trying to manipulate the cooperation we are engaged in with the United States."
President Erdogan was uncharacteristically cautious on the subject of the S-400s when reporters asked him about Mikheyev's statement during his flight home from a recent visit to Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro. "We have no hesitation about dealing with Russia on a second consignment or similar issues. We have taken many steps with Russia whether with regard to the S-400s or other defence industry matters," he told Milliyet newspaper.
As Idiz observed: "He refrained from going into details and said nothing to indicate that a deal for the delivery of more S-400s was in the pipeline and would be concluded by the end of the year."
"Analysts believe Erdogan is caught between a rock and a hard place with regard to Russia today," Idiz continues. "His vision of establishing strategic ties with Moscow to replace Ankara's seriously deteriorated ties with the West has proven to be little more than a pipe dream. Ankara has discovered over these past three years in particular that differences with Moscow and Russia over issues such as Syria, Libya, the Caucasus and Ukraine are not only insurmountable but are also sources of potential tension between the two countries if not managed carefully."
This, indeed, is the fix Erdogan currently himself in with Russia. A spate of foreign policy setbacks with disastrous results on the economy are among the reasons that Ankara has awoken to the fact that it is more dependent on the West than it had thought. It is now trying to work its way back into Western good graces, but Moscow is not making it easy.
"The once much-touted notion by Erdogan and his followers that Turkey and Russia could establish strong ties with a view to jointly opposing the West has proven to be the fallacy that it always was," Idiz writes. "Made aware of this at a time when it faces serious problems on all sides, Ankara is trying to restore its place in the Western alliance."
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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