For centuries, Russia has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure and fought multiple wars in the hopes to either directly annex the Turkish Straits—the Bosporus and the Dardanelles—or to establish a friendly vassal regime there that would control the strategic waterway and allow only Russian warships to pass. Moscow’s control over the Straits is vital to ensure secure Russian access to the Mediterranean region and to effectively move southern Russia’s line of defense from the littoral waters near Sochi and Taman all the way out to the Aegean Sea.
Since the 15th century, Russia has presented itself as the only true successor of the Byzantine Orthodox Roman Empire; indeed, the double-headed eagle on the coat of arms of the House of Palaiologos—the last Byzantine imperial dynasty—today makes up the national coat of arms of the Russian Federation. Capturing Istanbul (Constantinople), restoring the Orthodox cross on the Hagia Sophia (the Ottoman Turks turned it into a mosque; at present, it is a museum), taking the coveted Straits, and ultimately uniting the Balkan and Middle Eastern Orthodox people under Russian rule seemed close at hand several times in the last couple of centuries. But each time, as Russian forces invaded and marched to Constantinople or planned to land troops on the Bosporus, something went wrong. Nonetheless, in 1833, the Russian navy actually succeeded in landing some 30,000 troops on the Bosporus to stop the advancing forces of Egyptian ruler Mehmed Ali and saved the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II. The Russian forces withdrew only after the Turks signed a mutual defense compact—the Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi—effectively turning Turkey into a Russian protectorate with a secret clause requiring the closure of the Dardanelles to all foreign warships at Russia’s command. The modern-day equivalent of such a treaty is arguably the ultimate goal of Moscow’s present Middle Eastern policy.
As components of Russian S-400 air-defense complexes arrive in Turkey (see EDM, July 16), dramatically escalating the tensions in relations between Ankara and Washington, Moscow sees the moment as a great opportunity that must not be squandered. For the Kremlin, the S-400 purchase must not be a onetime event, but a basis on which to reestablish “historical relations” that were previously undermined by foul Western influence and local duplicity (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 17).
Initial reports about Moscow and Ankara discussing the purchase of advanced S-400 missiles appeared in November 2016, and the contract was officially confirmed in September 2017. Turkey was to buy four S-400 batteries (or “divisions,” as they are known in Russian artillery or air-defense forces) for an estimated sum of $2.5 billion. Turkey paid an undisclosed cash advance on the purchase, and the rest was covered by a loan provided by the Russian government. In the Russian military, a typical Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) air-defense regiment has two or three S-400 or S-300 divisions. The United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members have been unsuccessfully trying to dissuade their ally Turkey from purchasing and deploying the Russian-made S-400s, which reportedly cannot be integrated with Western (NATO) air defenses. Moreover, this Russian tech could prove to be a security risk for the Alliance by collecting and passing detailed radar information about the newest US stealth F-35 Lightning II fighter. Turkey builds components for the F-35 and has contracted 116 F-35 jets for some $10 billion. To avoid the possible security breach caused by the coexistence of US F-35s and Russian S-400s within the Turkish military, Washington has offered to sell Ankara US Patriot anti-aircraft missiles instead and threatened to impose sanctions and to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan steadfastly refused to cancel the deal with Moscow. On July 12, the initial components of the first S-400 division began arriving at an airbase near the Turkish capital, delivered by super-heavy VKS An-124 transport jets (Newsru.com, July 12; Kommersant, July 13).
The stage was set for an escalation in the US-Turkey confrontation. Russian arms deals and their execution tend to be highly secretive, but not in this case. Both sides seemingly deliberately turned the airborne delivery into a public relations spectacle, posting footage of the transport jets being loaded in Russia and unloaded in Turkey. An S-400 battery consists of multiple heavy trucks, special transporters, different radars, equipment, missiles, launchers and supplies. But considering the shortage of flight-ready An-124s, the Russian airborne delivery has been dragged out over multiple days, each time accompanied by separate announcements (Militarynews.ru, July 18). Reportedly, the S-400 “air bridge” will last at least a week, and the costly aerial transportation method was chosen to speed up the delivery as well as to prevent Washington from derailing the deal at the last moment (Izvestia, July 15).
It would have been significantly cheaper and actually faster to deliver the S-400s the traditional way: by train to a Black Sea port and then via a single cargo ship or military transport, discreetly and directly to Turkey. But Moscow seems intent on exploiting the maximum PR hype of the S-400 sale and to use it to needle Washington—thus ensuring a maximum response, sanctions, and the possibility that the split between the NATO allies will solidify. The production of a complete S-400 division typically requires around 24 months from beginning to end. But according to Alexander Mikheyev, the CEO of the Russian arms trade monopoly Rosoboronexport, the Turkish S-400 deal was sped up “to be realized in record-breaking time.” The deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, Yuri Borisov, claimed the delivery of all the S-400 components to Turkey will be completed in 2019, though the training of Turkish specialists to man the system may take more time (Militarynews.ru, July 17).
Moscow has been doing everything possible to ensure the contract with Erdoğan sticks despite US pressure, possibly diverting to Turkey elements of S-400 systems originally earmarked for the Russian VKS. Russia is offering Turkey Su-57 stealth fighters to replace the F-35 jets. Hopes are high in Moscow that the split within NATO may grow, thus bringing Russia a step closer toward its ultimate goal of establishing a friendly state on the Bosporus. As the S-400s were landing in Turkey, leading Rossia-1 TV channel anchor Vladimir Solovyev played footage of flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who three years ago predicted Turkey would become a close Russian ally by leaving NATO and joining the Russia-led Customs Union: “Three years ago this seemed a utopia, but is it now?” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 14).