Turkey’s purchase—and now receipt—of the S-400 missile defence system raises myriad questions of interoperability and information security that together have led to Turkey’s removal from the F-35 programme. The system’s Russian origin also raises broader concerns over Turkey’s commitment to NATO, with some observers labelling the move a “strategic shift away from NATO.”

However, the S-400 may instead indicate a pragmatic foreign policy seeking to increase Turkey’s geostrategic flexibility. This policy, while accompanied by its own host of challenges for Turkey-NATO relations, is not a true reorientation. Instead, it aims to offset NATO’s perceived  “unreliability” through interest-driven, issue-specific cooperation with actors, like Russia, outside the Euro-Atlantic Community. This enables Turkey to find support for short-term objectives where it diverges from NATO, while also theoretically increasing its strategic value to NATO by demonstrating it has other options—although it is by no means clear the latter has materialized.

This is a precarious balance; it greatly raises tensions within NATO, threatens a US-Turkey rupture, and provides Russia unprecedented leverage in Turkey-NATO relations. Turkey has decided this is an acceptable risk to find “best-alternatives” in correcting a “security deficit,” wherein NATO is unable or unwilling to address Turkey’s nonstate or indirect security concerns.

The S-400 is part of this best-alternative approach. The deal stems in significant part from the US’s 2015 withdrawal of the PATRIOT system over Turkish protests. Coming just a month before Turkey shot down a Russian jet, this action highlighted to Turkey an unwillingness of the Alliance to consider its security interests, short of an Article 5 crisis.

Yet concerns over the “security deficit” don’t end with just an unwillingness to consider Turkish preferences. Splits over the July 15 coup aftermath, the PYD/YPG, and Turkish illiberalism, contribute to a Turkish belief that NATO is undermining its regional interests. In Erdoğan’s troubling words: “the biggest threats we face are from [the Western alliance].” The message apparently received in Ankara is that it requires NATO consent to guarantee its own security. Such messaging stands in stark contrast to Turkey’s self-perception of its natural role as a major, independent regional power.

Rapprochement with Russia on an interest-based, issue-specific basis, like the S-400, allows Turkey to secure support where its interests diverge from NATO Allies. Russia’s vocal calls for a return to a multipolar global order are entirely compatible with a Turkish vision of its regional leadership. Turkey does not explicitly maintain international multipolarity as an objective, but diverging interests render it sensitive to NATO, especially American, actions that it sees as “dictates.”

Still, rapprochement is limited. Turkey is not seeking to turn away from NATO; it hopes to reconcile NATO membership with interest-based, issue-specific outreach to those outside the Alliance. In fact, rapprochement with Russia depends on its NATO membership. Best-alternative engagement with Russia only fills short-term gaps for Turkey, where—as in Syria—the “security deficit” is most pronounced. It does not resolve the longstanding security dilemma of the Russia-Turkey relationship.

Russian-Turkish enmity has a centuries-long history—amity has a far shorter, more irregular one. The power imbalance between the two remains in Russia’s favour, and so Turkey depends on NATO to tilt the scales. Erdoğan in Spring 2016 lamented the Black Sea as a “Russian lake” without NATO presence, and while Turkey-Russia relations have since dramatically improved, they are by no means firmly aligned. Turkey continues to deepen defence cooperation with Russia’s pro-Western adversaries in the Black Sea region, like Ukraine and Georgia. Disagreements on long-term security, such as over Idlib in Syria, demonstrate the importance of NATO relationship in preventing the balance from becoming too unfavourable. Sans NATO support, Ankara would be much more poorly placed to guarantee its interests in negotiating with Moscow, making a “strategic shift away from NATO” impractical.

NATO-Turkey relations in danger. Turkey feels paradoxically both threatened by and dependent on the Alliance, particularly given deteriorating Turkey-US relations. The S-400 will make things worse, sanctions—if applied—will compound, and distrust and confusion in US-Turkey relations are extremely high. Turkey will continue to seek best-alternatives to fill the NATO “security deficit,” and further imperil the relationship.

Despite these dangers, Turkey-NATO relations have a still-real lifeline: Turkey’s ideal outcome is to reconcile its efforts to find best-alternatives for the “security deficit” with NATO membership. It actually needs NATO to effectively pursue interest-based, issue-specific outreach, to Russia or another. If nothing else, this is a value-added that is not easily replaced. Capitalizing on this is essential to sustaining the relationship through perhaps its most tumultuous period.


Scott Bryce Aubrey is a master’s candidate at NPSIA and a coordinator at its Centre in Modern Turkish Studies.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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