Turkey prepares to receive Russian missile system, as questions swirl over potential US punishment

The shipment of Russia’s highly-anticipated S-400 air defense missile system to Turkey is expected to roll out any day now, much to the indignation of many U.S. officials.

Despite the pressure, Turkey has refused to rescind.

“Ever since the U.S. support for the Kurds in Syria and suspected U.S. support of the attempted coup against the Erdogan government, the U.S. relationship with Turkey has been on rocky ground,” John Wood, a military analyst and author of “Russia, the Asymmetric Threat to the United States,” told Fox News. “For its part, Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has won few friends in the Whitehouse. Putin has exploited the rift between the two countries to ensure Russia is one of the key players to any resolution of the Syrian civil war. The S-400 purchase represents rubbing salt in the wound.”

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thus far remained tight-lipped on precisely when they will touch down or where they will be deployed.

According to Kamran Bokhari, Founding Director of the Center for Global Policy and Nonresident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation, Turkey's purchase of the S-400 is informed by a couple of considerations.

“First, it is trying to diversify its military hardware, which thus far have been based on western systems. Second, by doing so, it is trying to gain leverage in its relations with the United States, which have been bad lately,” he conjectured. “The Turks are also calculating that the repercussions are unlikely to be too severe. The U.S. will have to impose some sanctions but not as an end but a means to finding a compromise solution.”

However, the purchase has long drawn the ire of several U.S officials, who have cautioned that Ankara's already withering economy will be hit with sanctions and barred from a program to produce F-35 fighter jobs once the deal is sealed.

The U.S concern stems from the notion that Turkey’s turn to Moscow will enable the adversarial nation to comb crucial intelligence that could disrupt and compromise NATO developments and especially the development of the American F-35, which Turkey is part of developing.

Wood anticipates that there will likely be a clear and measured reduction in intelligence sharing between the two countries, and the prospective F-35 purchase by Turkey will most certainly be taken off the table.

A serviceman of an S-400 Triumf missile system crew on standby as an anti-aircraft military unit of the Russian Air Force and the Russian Southern Military District enters combat duty near the Crimean town of Dzhankoy. 

A serviceman of an S-400 Triumf missile system crew on standby as an anti-aircraft military unit of the Russian Air Force and the Russian Southern Military District enters combat duty near the Crimean town of Dzhankoy.  (Sergei MalgavkoTASS via Getty Images)

Yet in a pivot away from the stance of most administration top brass, President Trump has declined to come down hard on Turkey, most recently suggesting that the country was a victim of unfair Obama administration policies that prevented them from buying the U.S Patriot air-defense system.

The effectiveness of the S-400 long-range, surface-to-air missile system in the theater of war remains to be seen. According to a National Interest analysis, the system boasts an impressive ability against a range of aerial targets including aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles but is yet to be tested in combat – however its use as an economic warfare tool cannot be underestimated.

“It’s a prime example of Russian Hybrid Warfare against the United States and its NATO allies,” the report surmised. “The first strategic benefit (for Russia) is obviously the income generated by arms sales. The second strategic benefit is the prestige and international status generated by the perception that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with and capable of developing advanced offensive and defensive weapons systems.”

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Many experts conclude that the real winner in the tussle is America’s greatest Cold War adversary.

“In Turkey, there are two different factions behind the S-400 deal with Russia. On the one hand, the so-called Eurasianists, a clique within the security bureaucracy pushing for a pivot away from the West toward Russia and China, have been strong advocates of the acquisition of the Russian hardware,” explained Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament and now Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “On the other hand, Erdogan and his inner circle of loyalists want the Russian air defense system more out of a concern for their own safety, as a precaution against a future coup attempt, a fail-safe against Turkey’s very own F-16 jets.”

These two factions, which used to be bitter adversaries during the first decade of Erdogan’s rule, he noted, have grown increasingly closer over the last five years.

“Beyond sheer self-interest, both factions share a deep animosity toward the Western world and its values. They would, therefore, see U.S. sanctions resulting from the S-400 purchase as yet another opportunity to undermine Turkey’s ties with the U.S. and other NATO allies,” Erdemir claimed. “Moscow stands to gain the most from this crisis, as Ankara increasingly plays a spoiler role within NATO. Turkey’s drift from the transatlantic alliance will make the country more susceptible to Russian influence and meddling.”

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Moreover, some experts argue that despite the war of words and looming punishment, little of substance is likely to come from the hoopla.

“(The U.S. will likely respond) with some kind of punitive measure, but probably short of stopping F-35-related work, given this administration’s love of military exports and spot for authoritarian leaders like Erdogan,” said Defense Priorities Policy Director, Benjamin H. Friedman. “It will cause more people to talk about whether Turkey belongs in NATO, but I doubt there is a will among NATO members to do anything about it.”