Why does Turkey play the "arms trade" card?

China Military Online
Chen Zhuo
2019-11-27 17:06:36
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit the MAKS 2019 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, Aug. 27, 2019.

By Ma Junyang

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently met with US President Donald Trump during his visit to the White House. The two leaders discussed issues such as the security situation in Syria and Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense system, but no substantive progress was made in eliminating differences between the two sides.

Arms trade and military cooperation between Turkey and Russia have seemed to embrace a “honeymoon period” for some time. However, Turkey’s recent moves including its purchase of S-400 missile defense system have been considered “threats” by the US, resulting in a deterioration of bilateral relations. However, it isn’t hard to reveal that Ankara is more likely to play the “arms trade” card, in hopes to enjoy the best of both worlds by seeking equilibrium in its ties with the US and Russia.

The first batch of Russian S-400 missile defense system has been delivered to Turkey, which is estimated to be officially commissioned into service in the Turkish military in April 2020. At the 14th Moscow International Aviation and Space Salon in August 2019, the Russian side expressed its willingness to carry out arms trade and technical cooperation on Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets, which aroused great interest from Turkish President Erdogan.

Russia and Turkey have many shared benefits in arms trade and military cooperation. In recent years, Moscow has been hoping to expand its “circle of friends” in the Middle East. Arms trade will not only bring considerable economic returns to Russia, but also enable Moscow to inference in Middle East issues and expand its influence in the region at a relatively low cost. While for Turkey, through conducting arms trade and military cooperation with Russia, it can not only obtain advanced defense systems to increase the independence and reliability of its homeland defense, but also exert pressure on the US and gain the initiative and a bigger say in its relations with Washington.

Dissatisfied with the “close cooperation” in arms trade between Turkey and Russia, the US side has threatened to impose sanctions and kick Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet program. In response to this, Turkey declared that it would purchase fighter jets from other countries if the US refused to deliver F-35 fighters to Turkey.

The F-35 fighter jet program is undoubtedly a key project in arms trade and military cooperation between the US and Turkey. Breaking up with each other in this program is hard for both of them. On the one hand, the US cannot afford the risk of completely expelling Turkey from the F-35 program. Being both a big buyer and an important participant in the program, Turkey holds some key confidential information. Moreover, considering that Turkey is a great military power in the Middle East, the US hopes to influence Ankara’s decisions through the F-35 program, as a step to achieve its strategic goals in the region. On the other hand, Turkey doesn’t want to abandon the F-35 program. As one of the earliest countries participating in the F-35 program, Turkey has invested huge amounts in the program, and it is hard to find an alternative for this high-performance stealth fighter jet in a short term. So, Turkey is unwilling to fall out with the US before it gets the F-35 aircraft.

Through its geopolitical advantage, Turkey tries to take control of the imitative in arms trade and military cooperation and strike a balance in its relations with the US and Russia. Nevertheless, Turkey has been a major ally of the US for a long time, and most of its imported military equipment came from the US despite its relatively independent national defense. In this context, it is unlikely that US-Turkey relations fall into a full breakdown. Meanwhile, Turkey won’t spend massive military budgets buying all key equipment from Russia. After all, Russian weapon systems will only serve as supplements, and Turkey’s arms trade with Russia is merely an expedient tactic.

(The author is from the National University of Defense Technology.)

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