Russian-Turkish Missile Deal Enacted by Weakening Autocrats

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 101

Equipment for the S-400 missile defense system is loaded off of a cargo plane in Turkey, July 12 (Source: Getty Images)

Since July 12, Russian transport planes have been landing at the Murted Air Base near Ankara, delivering elements of the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which Turkey purchased despite strong objections from the United States and expressions of concern from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moscow proposed the deal three years ago, shortly after the attempted military coup in Turkey, and the two sides finalized it in December 2017. The purchase signifies a material development of the Russian-Turkish “strategic partnership,” reconstituted after the bitter quarrel in late 2015 over the downing of a Russian bomber that performed a combat mission in Syria and deviated into Turkish airspace. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invested much personal effort in executing this deal, describing it as a major achievement in his country’s modern history (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 14). This persistence is usually justified with grand but vague geostrategic propositions; however, in this case, for both the Turkish and Russian leaders, domestic political considerations were what mattered most (Voennoe Obosrenie, July 15).

Erdoğan harbors deep suspicions that the US and NATO were sympathetic to, if not directly behind, the Turkish military’s failed attempt to depose him in July 2016. And so he seeks to strengthen Turkish sovereignty, perceived as a reduced dependence on security ties with unreliable allies (Kommersant, July 15). He is aware that most European politicians are pleased with his political opponents’ victory in the recent mayoral elections in Istanbul, which has delivered a major blow to his authoritarian rule (, July 10). The victorious coalition of opposition parties has to focus on delivering on public expectations and dares not to question the S-400 deal, which Erdoğan has been using to reassert his control over Turkish security policy (RIA Novosti, July 13).

Russian President Vladimir Putin pretends to have a perfect rapport with Erdoğan despite their sharp disagreements on waging the Syrian war. The main value of the S-400 deal for Putin is not in strengthening Russia’s partnership with Turkey, but rather in provoking conflict between Ankara and Washington (Kommersant, July 12). Russian mainstream media is gloating about the failure of the Donald Trump administration to stop the delivery of the S-400 system and the trepidation in NATO that the discord will disrupt Alliance operations in the Black Sea theater (RIA Novosti, July 11). Most Moscow commentators predict that the US will not fulfill the promise of punishing Turkey for importing armaments from Russia, making only some symbolic gestures (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 14). Turkey has already been cut out of the F-35 Lightning II fighter program; but Russia is eager to suggest a new deal on exporting its newest (though still under development) Su-57 fifth-generation fighter (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 2).

The appearance of an arms sales victory is important for Putin for domestic political reasons, particularly since the Russian public’s attitude toward Turkey has trended positively after the sharp negative swing in early 2016 (, June 16). He can demonstrate a focus on security matters at the highest geopolitical level, leaving him only limited time to deal with such pesky matters as catastrophic flooding and fires in Irkutsk Region (Kommersant, July 9). This, however, is not what Russian society longs for: the public’s appetite for foreign policy achievements disappears and as irritation with the economic pains grows (Rosbalt, July 12).

The protracted economic stagnation translates not into politically convenient apathy, but rather into a growing desire for change (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 15). The Kremlin has no answer for this desire, and tries to discourage it by seeking to prove that no meaningful reforms are feasible—all the while signaling that demand for democratic expression of discontent will be swiftly suppressed (, July 15). This resolve to defend regime stability is exemplified by the exclusion of all opposition candidates from partaking in the forthcoming local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Moscow Echo, July 15). Protests have been promptly dealt with, and while this method of controlling elections may seem to be more effective than Erdoğan’s fiasco in Istanbul, it in fact betrays deep fears in Putin’s court of a sudden explosion of mass protests (New Times, July 15).

Both Russia and Turkey are stuck in economic doldrums, and the situation looks likely to deteriorate because of the looming prospect of new Western sanctions. For Turkey, the main threat is the combination of US punishment for the S-400 deal and punitive measures by the European Union in response to Turkish offshore exploration for natural gas off the coast of Northern Cyprus against the protestations of the Republic of Cyprus (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 14). For Russia, the issue is the probable introduction of new US sanctions targeting financial operations with Russian state bonds (RBC, July 15). Though President Trump may veto this US Congress-initiated step, the preemptive risk assessment may stimulate further disinvestment and capital flight from Russia (Moscow Echo, July 16).

The Russian economy has progressed from recession in 2015–2016 to feeble stagnation, but a new spasm of crisis appears increasingly possible—and Russia’s impoverished society is not ready for it (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 27). The angst about contracting incomes is exacerbated by the stream of revelations of corruption in law enforcement and even the Federal Security Service (FSB), where the usual embezzlement and extortion are mutating into plain banditry (Kommersant, July 6). The opposition candidates in Moscow can justly claim that their exclusion from elections is directly connected with the shameless corruption among the officially approved candidates and in the electoral commission (, July 1).

Erdoğan may try to present the implementation of the S-400 deal as a symbol of his defiance of US pressure, and Putin may claim that this success paves the way to new deals, particularly with India, which has also dismissed US objections (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 11). Neither of the two autocrats, however, can meaningfully impress their respective domestic audiences with this achievement. Urban middle classes in both countries are tired of their aging leaders, who conjure the illusion of irreplaceability and work hard to exterminate any challenge to their grasp on power. Street protests may remain containable and social media activism may be ignored as irrelevant, but the inescapable trajectory of degradation and decline is too obvious and quite disappointing for many of Russia’s and Turkey’s business and military elites. Fancy weapons systems cannot protect against the arrival of alternative futures and betrayals of corrupt courtiers.