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Why did Turkey buy Russian — not Western — missile defense systems?

Here’s what you should know about the continued delivery of the missile defense system to the NATO member state.

- July 16, 2019

Last Friday marked the arrival of the first S-400 missile defense systems in Turkey, more than half a decade after Turkey announced its plans to buy a long-range air-defense system. This snub of Western allies, first for China and then Russia, has been accompanied by repeated warnings of U.S.-imposed sanctions. What went wrong?

Rather than the U.S. using the strength it derives from its privileged position in global networks to pressure an adversary, Turkey’s S-400 deal is an example of Russia weaponizing a vulnerability that arises from the same network interdependencies to probe the limits of its power—a scenario Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell presciently foresaw. The use of foreign economic statecraft to advance strategic interests – geoeconomics – is reentering the conversation as Russia and China step up to the challenge. Arms deals are part of this spectrum. They are also a minefield because they are costly, conspicuous, and corrupt. If the price is right, governments and companies can and do cross them, but nowadays Western companies are finding it much more difficult than their competitors.

Geoeconomics of arms

Firstly, these companies have a handicap against their state-owned rivals that can get away with artificially underpricing their offerings. Gazprom can take a loss on a gas deal if the Kremlin so desires – to help an existing ally, curry favor with a future one, or make life miserable for its Western rivals – and that initial loss can even turn into a net profit if it creates more business, like arms sales for UAC or reactor projects for Rosatom. If the White House tried the same, it would be laughed away.

Secondly, the West has in place a regime against bribery and corruption that steadily expanded its jurisdictional reach but has little force over Russia and China. Albeit not entirely effective in deterring such illegal behavior, it disincentivizes business in markets with high corruption risks, penalizes those that remain invested in them, hurts their share prices when they get ensnared in enforcement action, and exposes them to costly shareholder litigation. In contrast, informal, network-based governance is already the norm in Moscow and Beijing, making it easier to form and operate transnational corruption networks in countries where such risks are endemic, Turkey being one example. These relationships also help to spread and sustain illiberal forces, which, as John Oven IV wrote, is a key factor in how forcefully a state would challenges U.S. power.

Making it personal

There is no wonder why Russia would want to sell to Turkey, but why would Turkey, a NATO ally, want to buy from it? Even if one looks past the terrible optics, the deal raises valid concerns that the F-35 would be compromised. Moreover, why is Turkey putting in peril the billions it poured into and stood to make from the F-35s and making itself a target of anti-Russia sanctions? The answer has much to do with how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and those around him recently consolidated power, a move that unleashed three destructive forces.

First, Erdogan and his administration cannibalized institutions – including the foreign service – as they turned into their family business, as was on full display at the U.S.-Turkey bilateral meeting at the G-20 summit in Osaka, where Erdogan’s daughter, Sumeyye, sat right next to him while his son-in-law, finance minister Berat Albayrak, was one seat away. Using Jessica Weeks’s parlance, Turkey turned from a machine regime, where elite consensus served as a check on power — to a boss regime – where executive power faces no constraints. Insulating oneself with family, friends, and loyalists has drawbacks. It makes groupthink all the more likely, erodes competence by putting political loyalty above professional merit, and makes many enemies. Erdogan already survived one coup, and, after a massive purge of alleged culprits, the nationalists, who were his sworn enemies before they became allies of circumstance, filled their place. If Erdogan and his inner circle fear a threat from within, the S-400 and the better relations it builds with Russia could be their insurance policy.

Five lessons from the latest elections in Turkey

Second, the new regime’s revanchism against its secular rivals upended Turkey’s existing networks with the West. This partly explains why Ankara snubbed the Americans and ignored the Europeans, even though their terms were better and a deal with the West would have prevented the current S-400 maelstrom. The globalization of defense production networks turned Turkey to an industrial strategy that often heavily relied on offset agreements and technology sharing. These ties, however, were centered around the seculars—and Erdogan purged them, elevating his own cronies (including his other son-in-law) in their place. For him, this was a doubly beneficial move: it weakened his rivals while empowering his allies, seizing on what Richard Bitzinger describes as the public’s techno-nationalist impulse with achievements that were often fictional and occasionally farcical but nonetheless popular. It also had an unintended consequence: defense industrial policy became a matter of public policy and backing out from the S-400 deal got costly.

Third, a recklessly overconfident foreign policy under a naive and incompetent team plunged Turkey into a geopolitical quicksand. Turkey’s grand strategy has traditionally been dominantly realist and isolationist. Politically secular and culturally different, Turkey was a natural outsider to the Middle East’s politics, and, the trauma of imperial collapse had instilled in Ankara a fear of foreign adventurism. The Erdogan regime broke from this legacy with the “Davutoglu doctrine.” Ankara’s timorousness, argued foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, deprived it of much-needed strategic depth. His vision was a new policy of engagement that would restore Turkey’s leadership in a new Pax Ottomana. Davutoglu promised zero problems, but left behind zero friends. His policy brought many indiscretions from a cavalier attitude toward Iran sanctions to avoidable and unnecessary crises with regional partners such as Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf. Its worst fiasco, however, was the disastrous involvement in Syria that both strained its relations with West and put it on a collision course with Russia.

Turning to Russia

Both countries having an uneasy relationship with the West, Ankara’s relations with Moscow were carefully cordial even at the height of the Cold War, and they grew even more so as Turkey’s trade with Russia and reliance on its energy increased, a vulnerability Russia exploits effectively. In the meantime, Ankara‘s own malpractices and Washington’s strategy in Syria (or its lack thereof) have chipped away at their ever-fraught alliance. Facing the prospect of a Kurdish mini-state on its border, Turkey was forced to act. With the U.S. neither able nor willing to help, its only option was to deal with Russia, which could not have come cheap as Turkey shot down a Russian jet, saw a Russian ambassador killed in its soil, and caused much trouble for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The S-400s are likely to have been that price – or maybe just its first installment.

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Selim Sazak is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.