News came in late last week that the US has officially jettisoned Turkey from the global F-35 program after the country received shipments of Russia’s S-400 air defence system.
Turkey’s decision may seem strange. Washington had been warning Ankara for months that accepting the S-400 meant it would be barred from operating F-35s. A statement from the White House suggested that the US had even offered to move Turkey to the front of the queue to receive Patriot missile defences instead.
"This administration has made multiple offers to move Turkey to the front of the line to receive the Patriot air defence system,” the statement said.
So why did Turkey press ahead with Russian air defences over an American system and a highly advanced fighter jet? Even if Washington had not made such public warnings and behind-the-scenes offers, the Turkish decision still seems strange: surely it is obvious that one country cannot procure both Russian air defences and a fighter jet specifically designed to penetrate Russian air defences?
This exact point was made by the White House: “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
Yet there are always two sides to a story. In this case, Turkey’s decision – regardless of its merits - is best understood from its own point of view.
For decades, Turkey has sought to integrate into the West. It was the 13th state to join the Council of Europe in 1950, joined NATO in 1952, signed the Ankara Agreement in 1963 to form a customs union with Europe (completed in 1995), joined the European Economic Community in 1987, and began negotiating to become a full member of the EU in 2005. In many ways Turkey has been more committed to the European project than the UK.
Unlike the UK, however, Turkey has consistently hit a glass ceiling. Only a third of Europeans supported Turkish EU membership when negotiations were first opened in 2005; polls taken in Germany, Austria, and France showed up to 80 per cent opposed. France and Austria even took the unusual step of promising to hold national referendums on Turkish membership. Negotiations to join the EU are now frozen after years of delay. Even attempts to liberalise visa restrictions have gone nowhere.
Then, in 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. The pilot was killed. Ankara claimed the Russians were repeatedly using its airspace to bomb Turkmen-led rebel groups in Syria. These groups are predominantly Turkish citizens, are allied to Turkey and support the politics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are also Turkey’s bastion against a hostile Kurdish state on its southern frontier.
Turkey’s European and NATO allies, however, seemed to side with the Russians. US military officials went on the record saying that the Russian jet was actually in Syrian airspace. European officials expressed concern over ‘Turkish aggression’, hoped the alliance would not be called to support Turkish troops fighting against Russian-backed forces in Syria, and asserted that Turkey would not be able to invoke Article 4, which mandates NATO consultation when a member state feels its territory or security is threatened. Would NATO and Europe have responded with such a cold shoulder if Estonia, Latvia, or Sweden had downed a Russian jet over their borders? The question must surely have been asked in Turkey.
So, Turkey began to look elsewhere. NATO had already pulled Patriot missiles batteries out of the country and seemed slow to offer replacements. Meanwhile, hostile Kurdish groups were now close to controlling Turkey’s southern border, but Russian threats prevented Turkish forces from engaging. The US would not help – in fact it was actively supporting those same Kurdish groups - and a coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016, which he believes was organised by a US-based cleric, had sent relations with Washington to a new low.
Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity and reportedly offered Erdogan a deal: make a major Russian arms purchase as compensation for killing the pilot, mend relations, and Turkey is free to send soldiers into northern Syria. Operation Euphrates Shield began in August 2016 and Turkey officially signed the S-400 deal seven months later. Russia has now offered Su-35 jets as a replacement for the F-35s. In short, Putin has just exploited Turkey’s mounting frustration with the glass ceiling: he has prevented a fleet of NATO F-35s from threatening the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and secured valuable opportunities for Russian industry.
Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 program is not just its own fault - it is also a product of the US administration’s failure to understand Turkey’s point of view. The only winner, it seems, is Putin.