There is significant upheaval in world politics especially after Donald Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves. Putin sensed a magnificent opportunity to widen the differences between the US and Turkey and that’s exactly what he’s attempting to do through his overtures towards Turkey with regards to defence sales. Amidst Trump’s ‘inward-looking’ initiatives, Erdogan’s soaring ambitions to crown Turkey the ‘leader’ of the Muslim world and Putin’s revived efforts to establish Russia’s lost global clout, the world is witnessing a phase of fascinating geopolitical times.
The S-400 Deal
Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems sparked off discontent and worry in Washington. Despite numerous threats from America, Turkey didn’t back down and went on to consummate the deal.
The Americans are against Turkey’s move because Turkey is a NATO member and employs NATO air defence infrastructure. As air defence is a multi-layered aspect of warfare, integrating the S-400 into the existing network of weapons and radars primarily acquired from America will run the risk of exposing American defence capabilities to the Russians. Installing a new system like the S-400 will naturally have Russian representatives in Turkey providing on-ground support and training to Turkish operators which increases America’s security risks.
With Turkey being a NATO ally, having a modern Russian weapon on its land is being seen by America as a major shift in Ankara’s foreign policy that will weaken the interoperability and cooperation of NATO members. America did its best to prevent Turkey from purchasing the S-400, even going to the extent of warning Turkey that if it went ahead with the deal then all its pilots’ training in the US would have to leave the country. The threat had no effect.
Throw F-35 in the Mix
A few F-35s have already reached Turkey for its air force. America’s prime fighter jet and Russia’s most evolved defence system – which it calls the ‘F-35 killer’ – on the same patch of land…naturally this will irk more than a few in Washington. America fears that Russia will be able to glean vital information about the F-35 due to its involvement in the air defence structure of Turkey.
Turkey also has direct involvement in the F-35 fighter jet programme. It manufactures 937 separate parts for the F-35 of which about 400 are made exclusively in Turkey. Owing to the sudden security threats that America perceives due to the presence of the S-400 on Turkish territory, America is already pushing Turkey out of its F-35 programme.
The Nuclear Conundrum
As relations between Turkey and America deteriorate with unexpected rapidity, America finds itself in another, and a most serious, military conundrum – its nuclear weapons on Turkish soil.
The US has about 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs at Turkey’s Incirlik base. Amidst serious differences of opinions and Erdogan’s unconcealed desire for Turkey to have nuclear weapons of its own, the US is now pondering on what to do of its 50-odd nukes.
If the US decides to fly back its nukes then it would effectively end the close ties between the two nations and create the possibility of a disintegrated NATO. Putin will sense blood and swoop in to effectively cut Turkey from its Western alliances. If the US doesn’t bring its nukes back then it continues to face a rising security risk of a NATO ally possessing nukes but at the same time partnering with the primary NATO adversary.
The US has in total 150 B61 nuclear gravity bombs in Europe at various bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey.
Putin Tries to Capitalize
After selling Turkey the S-400 systems, there is news that Russia is in talks with to sell its Su-35 fighter jet as well. Recently, Erdogan and Putin met at the opening of the MAKS aviation show in Russia. It was reported that Erdogan looked into the cockpit of the Su-57 stealth fighter jet and asked, “So now, are we going to buy this one?”, to which Putin replied, “You could buy.”
If in the near future a deal for any of these fighter jets between the two countries materialises then it would sound the death knell for US-Turkey ties and Turkey would, in all likelihood, have its NATO membership cancelled.
Cracks Within NATO
As US-Turkey relations touch a nadir, NATO chief Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that NATO members should continue deploying air defence equipment in Turkey. He said that despite differences the member nations must act together.
Despite this statement by the chief, Spain, that has deployed a Patriot unit in Turkey is pondering over whether it should renew its commitment to continue deployment or not.
In Italy, the opposition League party has called for the withdrawal of its Samp-T batteries and Italian military personnel stationed in Turkey in response to Turkish attacks on the Kurds.
With Russia courting Turkey primarily to earn revenue through defence sales and varying opinions now emerging within the NATO on Turkish acts in Syria, it seems that NATO is developing quite a few fissures.
Looking at the overall situation, it is clear that Turkey, essentially due to Erdogan’s lofty visions and deep-set ego, is moving towards Russia who is more than happy to welcome the NATO member into its fold. China too would be eyeing these developments with intent as a Turkey aligning with Russia is any day better than a Turkey aligning with the US. This strengthens the ‘anti-West’ grouping. In the near future, if Turkey doesn’t mend its ties with the US then it would signal a massive shift in the global world order.
Add to this the divisions in the Muslim world with respect to India-Pakistan ties. While Malaysia and Turkey have openly backed Pakistan, Saudi and UAE have sided with India. All of a sudden international political ambitions and interests have become increasingly pronounced and vocal leading to a visible, albeit slow, shift in the world order. Only time will tell to what extent these shifts are permanent in nature.