For all his imperial delusions, Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t very smart.
The Turkish president thinks he’s boldly undermining the European Union in northern Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. He’s actually just dragging Turkey toward new sanctions and suffering. Supporting Azerbaijan in its conflict against Armenia, Erdogan thinks he’s supporting a glorious repudiation of Turkey’s Armenian nemesis. He’s actually only causing greater suffering for a military objective that won’t be achieved. Erdogan thinks he has established a great power relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He’s actually just Putin’s most useful idiot. All of these concerns mean that Turkey is now operating well outside the margins of its now-nominal NATO democratic alignment.
But from NATO’s perspective, the last Russian concern is especially significant.
After all, Erdogan on Friday confirmed that Turkey has now begun testing its S-400 air defense system. Following Turkey’s receiving of the advanced system from Russia last year, the United States and other NATO members pressured Erdogan to keep the S-400 in storage. They hoped that by this compromise, an agreement could be reached to replace the S-400 with a NATO replacement. With his typical dismissive attitude, Erdogan has now shredded that hope. Addressing on Friday, Erdogan observed that “it is true about the [S-400] tests, they have been done and will continue, how can we not test these kinds of capabilities we have? Of course, we aren’t going to consult America. We’re not going to ask America for permission.”
It’s a mindless nationalism of the kind that offers no obvious benefit to Erdogan except to make him look tough among the nation’s ultranationalist cadres — an increasingly important political ally for the president. Erdogan’s words have been received less positively in NATO capitals. Reacting to Friday’s announcement, the Pentagon condemned Turkey’s action “in the strongest possible terms.” Other NATO governments will echo this well-justified anger.
The simple truth is that Turkey’s activation of the S-400 isn’t only a rebuke of NATO, but it is also a direct threat to the aircrews responsible for NATO’s defense. Utilizing highly advanced radar and tracking systems, the S-400 can threaten aircraft and missiles at ranges of up to 250 kilometers. And where Turkey tests this system, it gives Russia a backdoor access point with which to gather intelligence on U.S. and allied aircraft. After all, Russian instructors are embedded in the Turkish testing network, and their number is almost certainly made up of a good deal of GRU intelligence officers.
It gets worse.
The Turkish Air Force is centered around F-16 fighter jets, which also form a significant complement of other NATO ally air forces. Turkey will want to test its S-400s against its most advanced F-16s, using them as mock targets. And that means using the S-400 against the F-16s in a great variety of range points, altitudes, speeds, and weather conditions. This would provide data that Russia could not otherwise access, in that NATO air patrols traditionally operate in a manner designed to protect capabilities and vulnerabilities in case war breaks out. In turn, Russia will be able to collect the Turkish data, either overtly or covertly, and transmit it back to Moscow. There, the Russians will fine-tune the S-400 to better detect NATO aircraft in the future. These lessons will also be integrated into other systems such as the S-350, the Krasukha electronic warfare system, and Russia’s developing S-500 project.
Turkey knows all this — and the threat that its action poses to NATO security. It is thus at once absurd and outrageous that Erdogan is so happy to undermine the security of the alliance’s 29 other members. By any measure, Turkey is quite literally betraying its allies.
U.S. and common NATO sanctions action is now needed. It is not enough simply to continue on the present track of restricting Turkey from accessing the F-35 strike fighter jet. Considering Erdogan’s unrepentant stance in favor of Putin’s interests, the U.S. should restrict Turkish banking access to the international banking system. The Turkish lira is already near junk value, hovering at extraordinary lows. Any new sanctions would carry major economic consequences. Erdogan must make a choice: his pet project from Putin or his economy.