Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air-defense system in 2017 has had significant political implications and consequences. The purchase resulted in Turkey being expelled from the F-35 program and facing sanctions from the United States.
Despite these penalties, Turkey has held on to its S-400s and has yet to make them operational. This is due to the high political cost of abandoning the system. The S-400 has taken on symbolic significance for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and its supporters, particularly Turkish far-left and far-right nationalist figures and former military leaders.
By going ahead with the S-400 deal and keeping the system despite US opposition, the ruling AKP party has benefited politically, especially among left- and right-wing nationalist audiences in Turkey. This political support has been crucial for the AKP, especially as it has faced growing dissent at home due to a worsening economy and the upcoming 2023 elections.
Furthermore, there has been a growing distrust of the US in Turkey, with many viewing Washington as an antagonist. This sentiment was fueled by US support for Syrian Kurdish militants, which Turkey considers to be affiliated with the Kurdish PKK terrorist group. As a result, the Russian S-400 system became a symbol of Turkish defiance against the US and a preferable alternative to the US-made Patriot missile-defense system.
Additionally, Turkey has promoted a narrative that downplays its role in NATO and emphasizes its status as a powerful regional actor pushing back against US and NATO influence. This narrative has allowed Erdogan to portray himself as an accomplished regional leader and appeal to his supporters. It has also made it politically costly for Ankara to abandon the S-400 system and mend its relationship with NATO.
However, there are signs that Turkey may be reconsidering its attachment to the S-400s. The government has not yet purchased a second batch of S-400s from Russia, and there have been discussions with France and Italy about a potential alternative air-defense system. Turkish firms are also working on developing their own air-defense systems, reflecting a desire to reduce reliance on other countries.
While these developments indicate a shift in Turkey’s stance, abandoning the S-400 system still carries political risks. In February 2021, when the defense minister suggested a compromise on the S-400s, there was a strong backlash from nationalist circles, forcing the AKP to retract the comments.
In conclusion, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 air-defense system has serious political implications and has strained its relationship with the US and NATO. The system has taken on symbolic significance for Erdogan’s government, making it politically costly to abandon. However, there are indications that Turkey may be considering alternatives, reflecting a desire to reduce reliance on other countries for its air-defense needs.