On Friday, the Turkish Defence Ministry announced that it had taken delivery of the first shipment of material related to the Russian S-400 air defence system. Two more deliveries are meant to occur, meaning this new missile system will be ready by October this year. This move, while planned for some time, has come under heavy criticism from American officials. While the American response is yet to be seen, sanctions are likely, threatening Turkey’s ties to the NATO alliance.
NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was formed in 1949, in the midst of Cold War tensions. Signed between 12 nations from Western Europe and North America, its purpose had been to formalise a network of post-war alliances and replace them with a collective defence agreement. Over the course of the 20th and early 21st century, it would expand its membership a number of times. Today, it is an organisation with 29 member states. While not an initial signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty, Turkey joined the organisation soon after its formation, becoming a member in 1952. As a nation on the periphery of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Turkey was seen as a crucial member of the alliance, to the point where, in 1961, the United States saw fit to station a squadron of nuclear-armed PGM-19 Jupiter missiles there. These missiles would later be a key point of tension between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A., leading to their removal at the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963.
Turkish acceptance of a Russian missile system appears to demonstrate that American influence over the Cold War alliance is waning. According to Al Jazeera, Afzal Ashraf, professor of conflict security at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., called the development a “very significant political concern”. Ashraf went on to say, “This is the first time a major [NATO] member has taken a weapons system from Russia. It’s a political statement that the U.S. doesn’t have hegemony and control over NATO members and particularly over Turkey.” Turkish acceptance of the Russian missile system, then, may reflect changing perceptions of American influence. During his election campaign, President Donald Trump made numerous comments criticising NATO, at one point promising that if elected he would withdraw the United States from the organization. While this did not eventuate, his criticisms have continued. In March of this year, Foreign Affairs magazine noted that Trump’s rhetoric had helped to increase fears about NATO’s future.
At present, the long-term effects of this move remain to be seen. Turkish justification for the move does not appear to indicate a firm shift towards the Russian Federation: instead, the Turkish government claims that its acceptance of the S-400 missile system is because the United States and other NATO members had not been able to provide an alternative. In America, advisors are already urging President Trump to impose sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The sanctions which Trump would be able to impose vary in nature, whether it be as simple as banning of visas to the much harsher denial of export licenses or the blocking of transactions with the U.S. financial system. The move also places Turkey’s membership of the F-35 fighter program in jeopardy. Already, Turkish pilots stationed in the U.S. as part of this program have had their training halted, and it seems likely that Turkey will lose all access to this if they accept the remaining two shipments.
Ultimately, this issue reflects wider political concerns. While NATO is unlikely to collapse in the next few years, American reticence to assist its European allies, and its continuing critical rhetoric, may lead to more member nations seeking connections with nations outside the alliance. Turkey may just be the first example of a new trend. Combined with American punishment for doing so, member states may find themselves doubting the future of an American-led NATO and push for greater autonomy, or remove themselves from the alliance entirely.