(S-400 : Russia’s geopolitical missile targeting the US)
The Turkish-American relations are at a crossroads. Unlike past history of their troubled relationship saw hiccups but the two NATO allies moved on eventually, this time around, they are barreling toward a clash.
From an Indian perspective, it is of interest that the clash is over the Turkish decision to buy the S-400 Triumf missile defence system from Russia, which violates the US’ sanctions regime against Russia known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
In September last year, Washington invoked CAATSA for the first time and sanctioned China over its purchase of Russian military jets and surface-to-air missiles — 10 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missiles. Will it be Turkey’s turn now? And if Turkey gets sanctioned, can India be far behind?
The US had explicitly warned India against going ahead with the S-400 Triumf deal with Russia. But India went ahead, nonetheless, last October. (The deal is estimated to be worth at least $5.4 billion.) But while Delhi went about its decision tactfully, Ankara is openly defiant. The Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated on Wednesday in a TV interview,
“We signed a deal with Russia for the purchase of S-400, and will start co-production. It’s done. There can never be a turning back. This would not be ethical, it would be immoral. Nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat. Later, we may perhaps go for the S-500s as well, after the S-400.”
The US probably never ever heard such spiteful words from a key NATO ally. Erdogan also warned that the U.S. should not try to “discipline” Turkey through trade measures. If it did, he emphasised, Turkey has its own measures prepared. One of the trade measures he alluded to is the US’ intention to exclude Turkey from the generalised system of preferences (GSP).
Interestingly, while notifying the US Congress last week regarding his intention to remove the GSP benefits to them in trade, President Trump bracketed India with Turkey. India downplayed Trump’s move, saying the GSP benefits are only marginally affecting India’s exports to the US. But Erdogan apparently plans to retaliate.
The Pentagon has sharply reacted to Erdogan’s remarks, warning Turkey of “grave consequence in terms of our military relationship.” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior US general for operations in Europe and NATO’s top officer, warned in congressional testimony on Tuesday that Turkey’s pursuit of the S-400 deal would jeopardise American plans to sell to Ankara the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for both policy and security reasons.
“My best military advice would be that we don’t then follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that’s working with Russian systems,” Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony. According to a Reuter report, he hinted at concerns that Turkey’s using both the S-400s and the F-35 could provide Russia with valuable information on how to defeat the tech-heavy jet slated to become a signature fighter for NATO countries and their partners.
However, Turkey is not backing down. The Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has disclosed that the S-400 missile system will reach Turkey in July and deployment will go ahead as planned in October. The space for diplomatic manoeuvring is shrinking and, clearly, the chances for imposition of US sanctions against Turkey under CAATSA are increasing.
Of course, if Washington imposes sanctions against its key NATO ally, it is going to be highly problematic to exempt India from similar punitive measures for committing the very same offence. Interestingly, like Erdogan, Modi is also getting a very bad press in the US lately. They are the kind of ultra-nationalists that the US regards as hindrances to its regional strategies.
The Turks harbour the suspicion that the failed coup in July 2016, which was masterminded by the Turkish Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen living in Pennsylvania in exile for the past two decades, had covert American support.
(Fetullah Gulen’s lavish compound in Pennsylvania)
Last week, incidentally, US First Lady Melania Trump visited a pre-kindergarten class in Oklahoma, which Ankara believes is linked to supporters of Gulen. Turks believe that the White House was taunting Erdogan.
President Trump’s detractors in the US and in Europe used to berate him for empathising with “strong men” like Erdogan or Vladimir Putin. But as it turns out, the US finds such world leaders irksome in their zeal to uphold strategic autonomy in their foreign and security policies. The US media has been highly critical of Modi too in the recent months.
But the US attempts to undermine these nationalist leaderships have run into headwinds since leaders like Erdogan and Putin happen to enjoy mass support in their respective countries. For sure, Washington will be keenly watching the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary election in India in April-May where Modi is seeking a renewed mandate.
As for India, what emerges at the end of the 5-ear term of the Modi government is that under his watch India’s relations with the US have been pragmatic and based on limited common interests — shared notions of countering the rise of China and Islamism — and that too, without undermining India’s strategic autonomy. The US seems disappointed that Modi failed to fulfil their high expectations of him as a strategic partner. A sense of frustration is palpable among the US’ lobbyists in India as well.
At any rate, Modi government continues to negotiate big weapon deals with Russia, disregarding the CAATSA. Last week, PM Modi inaugurated a massive Russian-Indian joint venture, which will reportedly produce about 7,50,000 AK-203 rifles, the most recent version of the famous AK-47 rifles for the use of the Indian armed forces as the standard assault rifle for decades to come. Again, on Friday, Delhi inked with Moscow a defence deal worth over $3 billion for the lease of a nuclear-powered attack submarine from Russia. It cannot be lost on Washington that the Modi government expedited these mega deals with Russia even as its term in office is ending, while US arms vendors have been kept waiting.
All in all, S-400 which is one of the world’s most advanced AMB systems, is fast acquiring the reputation of a Russian “geopolitical missile” targeted at the US. If the US proceeds with sanctions against Turkey on account of the S-400 deal, it will have deleterious downstream impact on many geo-strategic templates.
The very cohesion of the NATO and the alliance’s overall effectiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East could get affected. Similarly, the US also eyes India as a potentially big customer for American weaponry and will be shooting at own feet if it were to sanction India. Suffice to say, paradoxically, any US sanctions may only increase Turkey or India’s dependence on Russia for sourcing advanced weaponry, which of course would defeat the very purpose of the CAATSA.