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As Turkish leader courts Russia, U.S. prepares to cut ties

House appropriators expected to soon approve provision in defense spending bill to remove Turkey from F-35 program.

An F-35 fighter jet taxies out for a training mission at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the first base to get combat-ready F-35s in 2017. (George Frey/Getty Images file photo)
An F-35 fighter jet taxies out for a training mission at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the first base to get combat-ready F-35s in 2017. (George Frey/Getty Images file photo)

Jilted by the United States, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has found a new friend, and possibly a new defense patron, in Washington’s longtime nemesis, Vladimir Putin.

For the United States, a NATO ally cozying up to Russia is more than an inconvenience. It’s a national security threat.

In July, Turkey will become the owners of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems, a weapon designed to shoot from the sky enemy jets, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A few months later, the Turkish military plans to start flying those same American-made stealth fighters.

Capitol Hill says Turkey simply can’t have it both ways and won’t let it buy the F-35 jet — or allow Turkish companies to participate in the international program, as they do now — if it purchases the Russian air defense system.

[CQ on Congress podcast: Lawmakers on impeachment and F-35s to Turkey]

It’s just too risky, lawmakers argue, and would give Russia a peek into the stealthy F-35’s secret capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, its vulnerabilities. And so, if Erdogan moves forward with buying the S–400, as he is expected to do, he is essentially forgoing a needed upgrade to Turkey’s aging fighter fleet while damaging his own economy and accelerating the rot in its decades-old alliance with Washington.

“He’s thoroughly irrational,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst and consultant for military aircraft programs, says of Turkey’s leader.

Irrational, Aboulafia says, for his economic brinkmanship and for believing he could get away with buying the Russian missile defenses and the American jet.

The United States in December approved its Patriot missile system — the S–400’s competitor in the international market — for sale to Turkey. But Erdogan, who has built an international reputation for his intransigence, is set on the Russian system.

Russia, historically, has been no friend of Turkey, and Erdogan has pulled his country out of missile defense deals for lesser reasons than a multibillion-dollar hit to the Turkish economy. But Congress’ threats to drop Turkey from the F-35 program, which could be made reality in fast-moving defense legislation, haven’t compelled Erdogan to drop his S–400 plans.

House appropriators are expected soon to approve a provision in the defense spending bill to remove Turkey from the F-35 program. And the issue will almost certainly be central to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s upcoming closed-door talks on the annual Pentagon policy bill.

Shifting alliances

That Turkey could turn to Russia for its air defense needs, just a few years ago, would have seemed impossible.

As the Syrian civil war raged in late 2015, a Russian jet flew a mission over northern Syria, a battle zone where Moscow fights in service of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and where Turkey has backed anti-Assad rebels. The Russian jet repeatedly violated Turkey’s airspace until a tailing Turkish F-16 shot it down. The Russian pilot ejected and rebels on the ground shot and killed him.

Moscow immediately ceased defense contacts with Ankara and sanctioned the country, stopping Russian tourism to Turkey and restricting Turkish imports.

Now, less than four years later, Putin wants to help Erdogan target any aircraft that threatens Turkish skies.

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Putin’s U-turn primarily stems from Erdogan’s obeisance.

Seven months after Putin sanctioned Turkey, and a month or so into peak tourist season, Erdogan apologized for shooting down the Russian jet and killing the pilot, touching off a diplomatic thaw.

Just weeks later, a failed coup d’etat against Erdogan drove him further from Washington and closer to Putin.

For Putin, a successful coup in Turkey against his autocratic fraternal twin would reveal to Russians a blueprint for deposing him. Putin reportedly called Erdogan the same weekend of the botched coup, resolutely standing with him.

Washington’s response, by comparison, was tepid. The State Department issued a short statement the day of the failed coup, saying it supports “Turkey’s democratically elected, civilian government and democratic institutions.”

Erdogan, meanwhile, was furious with Washington for not extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric whom Erdogan believes directed the coup, telling the state-run Anadolu Agency that the United States is standing by the plotters.

The United States and Turkey have an extradition agreement, but there was no evidence that Gulen — a one-time ally of Erdogan who has a devoted, yet underground, Turkish following — was behind the plot.

Regardless, Erdogan’s rule — his life, even — was undeniably threatened. So he jailed the military members, journalists and academics Erdogan says conspired against him, and has since consolidated his power, giving him more control over the state’s institutions than any other Turkish leader has had in decades.

But Erdogan is still uneasy.

Across Turkey’s southern border in northeast Syria, the Kurds — an ethnic group scattered throughout the Middle East with separatist militant groups in Turkey — have gained control over a large expanse of territory thanks in part to Washington.

Seeking to destroy the Islamic State terror group in Syria, but hoping to minimize U.S. involvement, the Pentagon trained and armed the best indigenous fighting force it could find — the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia.

For Erdogan, the YPG is no different than the PKK, a militant Kurdish insurgency in Turkey that for decades fought against Ankara in a bid for autonomy.

The State Department has tagged the PKK a terrorist organization, in the same league as the Islamic State and al-Qaida. And the YPG’s ranks include Kurdish fighters aligned with the PKK.

For Erdogan, the United States aligning itself with the Syrian Kurdish militia was an utter betrayal.

Now, with one fewer enemy and control of territory on Turkey’s border, the Kurds — for Erdogan, the terrorists who want a chunk of his country, too — are one step closer to statehood.

Putin has no gripe with the Kurds; his primary aim in Syria is to protect Assad, a mission that is looking more complete by the day. But Putin didn’t ally himself with the Kurds, either, a bonus for Erdogan as the two now work on a political settlement to end the Syrian civil war with another U.S. nemesis, Iran.

Geopolitics at play

The new dynamics between Turkey and the United States bring into focus why Erdogan, by partnering with Russia against U.S. wishes, may risk deepening his country’s economic ruin.

Since January 2018, Turkey’s currency has lost a third of its value. The country has been in a recession since late last year.

Buying the S–400 will only make things worse, a decision Aykan Erdemir, who served in the Turkish parliament from 2011 to 2015 in the opposition party, says is “the worst foreign and security policy step the Turkish government has taken in the history of the Turkish Republic.”

The Turkish lira in early April dropped 3 percent after the Pentagon blocked Turkey from receiving the F-35 parts and manuals it needs to operate the jets it had ordered. There is no telling what kind of drop Turkey could face if it is blocked from receiving 100 of the stealth fighters altogether.

Jobs are also in danger. Turkish companies produce hundreds of parts for the F-35, which Lockheed Martin, the jet’s manufacturer, says provide the companies $12 billion in “industrial opportunities.” Should Russian missile systems touch Turkish soil those multi-billion-dollar opportunities would vanish.

And it only gets worse for Turkey.

Turkey buying the S–400, or any substantive Russian weapons for that matter, would trigger sanctions. The U.S. would level between five and 12 separate punishments against Turkey — or any other country that buys banned Russian weapons — from blocking U.S. banks from doing business with Turkish entities to barring sanctioned Turkish entities from owning property in the U.S.

On top of that economic avalanche, Turkey would never reap the return on its $1.25 billion initial investment into the F-35 program.

Following those steep initial costs, Erdemir says, will be suffocating side effects. The former parliamentarian says that Turkey being forced out of the F-35 program would make the Turkish aerospace industry less innovative, reduce its competitiveness, diminish its research and development capacity and inevitably lead to a loss of experience in the workforce and the positive economic spillovers that come with it. Foreign investors, too, would be scared.

That’s the steep price Erdogan would pay for reorienting Turkish foreign policy.

“This is part of a grand plan of Erdogan, to pivot Turkey away from the transatlantic alliance and its values,” Erdemir says, “because Erdogan feels that his authoritarian regime survives more comfortably among other authoritarian regimes like Iran and Russia.”

What Turkey would lose from the United States could not be regained through its new friend.

“Russia’s not an alternative,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia program.

Turkey relies on Russia for much of its energy consumption, a point of leverage Moscow has over Ankara, and that dynamic won’t change anytime soon. But “Russia can’t replace a lot of the things that Turkey gets from the West,” Mankoff continues, “because Russia doesn’t produce them.”

If the sanctions and economic pain packaged with the S–400 hurt enough, Erdogan may ultimately have to acquiesce to Washington. But, if the 65-year-old ruler is committed to pivoting from the West, as his former parliamentary opponent suggests, he could look even further east.

“Turkey wants to also look beyond Europe to other parts of the world,” Singapore’s ambassador to Turkey, A. Selvarajah, told Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu in 2017. “Turkey’s strategy of having a multidimensional foreign policy is kindly welcomed by the ASEAN countries,” he said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-state bloc comprised of about 600 million people.

“We are looking for Turkey to be a hub,” Suvat Chirapant, Thailand’s former ambassador to Turkey, also told Anadolu, “connecting China, India, Japan and Korea with Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”

Cold war redux

This convoluted saga stems, in many ways, from the Cold War.

Washington so wanted Turkey on its side against the Soviets that the Truman administration convinced Congress to clear a $400 million (more than $4.5 billion in today’s dollars) emergency appropriation to help both Greece and Turkey rebuff Soviet advances. And until the Soviet Union fell, Turkey served as an able bulwark for NATO’s vulnerable periphery, providing for the bloc a geographic buffer and a toehold in the Middle East.

But the Cold War is over, and Erdogan is sick of being NATO’s sandbag.

Erdogan has tried and failed to provide for his own aerial defenses, and with good reason. Eight of Turkey’s neighbors — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Greece, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and, yes, Russia — have missiles they could launch into Turkish territory. While those countries are unlikely to lob missiles at Turkey anytime soon, the country is vulnerable.

In 2013, Erdogan tried to partner with the Chinese on a joint venture to develop a missile defense system. The deal fell apart, though, with China not agreeing to disclose to Turkey some of its more sensitive technology.

Turkey is also trying to build its own fifth-generation fighter jet, the TF-X, an aircraft that could replace its aging F-16s. That program hit a snag in March, the Financial Times reported, when Rolls-Royce said it would scale back its involvement in the program, a development that would almost certainly delay Turkey’s plans to start testing the jet in 2023. Erdogan is stuck. He needs air defense now.

“Erdogan has sort of backed himself into a corner on this,” says Carol Saivetz, a senior adviser at MIT’s security studies program. “Each side [Russia and the U.S.] has lots of ways of hurting the Turkish economy should they desire to do so.”

It leaves Erdogan only a few off-ramps from the calamity. He could renege on the S–400 deal, stave off U.S. sanctions and economic destruction, and even save face politically.

Turkey has, for years, wanted not just a missile defense system, but the underlying technology for the system itself. Without a so-called “technology transfer” from Moscow, the Turkish military will have to rely on the Russians to maintain the missile batteries throughout the systems’ lifespan, in essence tying Erdogan to Putin and relying on him for his continued air defense needs.

Erdogan could, Saivetz says, pull out of the deal and tell his political supporters that Russia negotiated in bad faith by not also giving Turkey the means to operate the systems independently.

Conversely, Erdogan could snub the United States, exacerbate an economic downturn and still plausibly retain his political power.

“The Turkish electorate, in general, votes less based on economic interests and more on issues of religious and cultural polarization,” Erdemir says. “That’s one of Erdogan’s advantages, that he can bring about economic ruin for some of his voters and still expect not to be subjected to significant backlash.”

Congress plans to leave Erdogan no middle ground. By November Erdogan can have Patriot missiles and new American fighter jets or a new Russian missile battery. He won’t have both. And that must frustrate the fledgling autocrat, knowing only the U.S. can undo his straitjacket.

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