Turkey has tested an advanced Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system, in defiance of U.S. sanctions threats and appeals from NATO not to jeopardize transatlantic security cooperation.
“For Russia, of course, this is a great win,” said former Turkish lawmaker Aykan Erdemir, a senior analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Without a doubt, this will continue to disrupt NATO, as not only the U.S. but other NATO members will now have to focus on sorting out the mess within the transatlantic alliance.”
President Trump expelled Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program in order to protect the cutting-edge warplane from Russian espionage following the purchase of the weaponry, but a federal law passed in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 elections mandates the imposition of sanctions on any customer who conducts a “significant transaction” with the Russian defense industry. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo forestalled that punishment by urging Ankara not to use the anti-aircraft system, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has flouted that compromise.
“It’s obviously a gesture of independence from the Western constraints,” Greek lawmaker Dimitrios Kairidis told the Washington Examiner during a recent discussion of tensions within NATO and Erdogan’s expected use of the Russian weapons. “He’s sending a message again to Washington that he’s independent-minded and he will do whatever he wants to do. And this gives Putin a certain satisfaction.”
Russian state-run media claimed early access to information about the test. “Three missiles of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system were launched,” TASS quoted “a source in military and diplomatic circles” as saying on Friday. “All of them successfully hit the designated targets.”
Turkey tested the S-400 even while intervening on behalf of Azerbaijan in a violent border dispute with Armenia, which hosts Russian military bases “in Russia’s backyard,” as Kairidis put it, raising the likelihood that the test is part of an effort to manage Erdogan’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The S-400 is one of the chips he is using vis a vis Moscow,” the Greek lawmaker said. “Until now, Russia has been very sensitive to this kind of foreign intrusion, and there is something there that we don’t know that is being missed … maybe the S-400 activation is part of the broader negotiation that is going on, for sure, between Moscow.”
That assessment gives Erdogan too much credit for strategic independence from the Kremlin, according to Erdemir.
“It might have to do with appeasing Russia,” the FDD analyst and Erdogan critic said. “When Erdogan crosses Putin in such a manner, he makes amends by appeasing him with a policy to the liking of the Kremlin.”
On the other hand, Turkey conducted the test alongside a visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who relies on NATO and Western allies for assistance against the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.
“We have and always will support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including over Crimea,” Erdogan said Friday. “Turkey sees Ukraine as a key country for ensuring stability, security, peace, and prosperity in our region.”
The timing of that statement, displayed prominently in Turkey’s pro-government English language media outlet, could reflect an attempt to soften any Western backlash.
“Maybe it’s more of a posturing to the West as Erdogan pretends to send a signal to Putin, who keeps Erdogan on a short leash and couldn’t care less,” Erdemir said.
Yet such flaunting of the S-400 has angered American lawmakers, especially in the wake of reports that Turkey used the Russian radars to track Greek F-16 fighter jets following recent air exercises conducted by a clutch of NATO members frustrated with Erdogan’s belligerent foreign policy.
“Turkey keeps testing their Russian S-400 missile system,” Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, tweeted this week. “NATO allies should behave like allies & must be held accountable when they don’t. Sanctions for S-400 purchases should be implemented as reports keep surfacing of Turkey’s active use w/ no intentions to reverse course.”