FOR TURKEY’S president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a deal is a deal. “There can never be a turning back,” Mr Erdogan said on March 6th, referring to his country’s purchase of a Russian air and missile defence system, which America and NATO strongly oppose. “Nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat.”
The two S-400 batteries Turkey has ordered from Russia, which come with their own radar, command centre and missile launcher, for a reported $2.5bn, pack more bang for the buck than most rival systems. But they may end up costing Turkey much more. Unless it walks away from the deal or mitigates the risks the system poses to NATO, the country could end up on the receiving end of American sanctions. The clock is ticking. Russia plans to deliver the first of the batteries by July of this year.
Having simmered since 2017, when the purchase was made public, the row over the S-400s has recently come to a boil. Days after Mr Erdogan’s statement, the Pentagon warned that Turkey would face “grave consequences” for buying the system. Two senior State Department officials are said to have delivered a similar message in person the previous week.
According to the Pentagon, Turkey risks expulsion from the F-35 programme, under which the country stands to acquire 100 fighter jets from America, and sanctions under a law (known as CAATSA) that targets transactions with the Russian intelligence or defence sectors. That would be messy. America would have to return over $1bn in Turkish contributions to the F-35 programme. Turkish manufacturers supply vital components; replacing them would take up to two years, delaying deliveries to other allies.
The row would not be a first. Last year the Trump administration responded to the arrest of an American pastor on outlandish terrorism charges by freezing the assets of two of Mr Erdogan’s ministers and doubling tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium products. Turkey eventually released the pastor, but not before its currency plunged. Turkish markets have already shuddered at the thought of a showdown over the S-400s. Having recovered from last summer’s battering, the lira has fallen steadily over the past seven weeks (see article).
Mr Erdogan insists there is no conflict between buying the Russian weapons system and his country’s NATO commitments. Others disagree. American and NATO officials have repeatedly warned that Turkey would not be able to plug the S-400 into the alliance’s early-warning system. They also say the system’s radars might allow Russia to spy on the F-35s, compromising their stealthiness.
Had Turkey’s interest in the S-400 been intended merely to nudge America into making Turkey a competing offer, it would have been a success. Late last year America proposed to sell Turkey a package of 140 Patriot missiles for $3.5bn, but only once it cancelled the deal with the Russians.
Mr Erdogan has rejected the offer. Turkey might consider buying the Patriots, his government has announced, but not at the expense of the s-400s. Turkey would probably not be able to walk away from the deal even if it wanted to. Doing so would create major problems for Turkey’s relations with Russia, particularly when it comes to Syria, says Emre Ersen, an academic at Marmara University. There is speculation in Ankara that Mr Erdogan may try to sidestep the crisis by offering to keep the Russian weapons in storage, or by reselling them to another country. Yet even that may not be enough. America opposes not just the system’s deployment, but its purchase.
Most analysts say the question is no longer whether things will come to a head, but how and when. Some think that America may decide to pile on the pressure ahead of local elections in Turkey on March 31st, placing Mr Erdogan in an uncomfortable spot. In theory, America can still grant Turkey a CAATSA waiver. Officials say this is unlikely. Another deadline looms this autumn, when two F-35s are set to arrive in Turkey. Unless the two NATO allies work out a solution, the planes might never touch Turkish soil.