Has Russia entered NATO's bedroom?
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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

Can we say a “terrible beauty” is born in the NATO’s underbelly — to borrow the words from the Irish-English poet Y. B. Yeats?  Moscow disclosed on Thursday that Russia’s contract with Turkey on the delivery of S-400 long-range air defense missile systems has been finalized. The Russian Presidential Adviser for Military and Technical Cooperation Vladimir Kozhin said, “The contract has been agreed and everything is understandable there but the issue of a loan, funds have not been settled yet.” (TASS) The Russian press reported that Turkey has sought a loan to finance the purchase and Moscow is actively considering the proposal.

It said Trump emphasised “the importance of all our allies and partners increasing their efforts to fight terrorism and extremism in all its forms.”

Within hours of the “breaking news”, US President Donald Trump was on the line, phoning up Turkish President Recep Erdogan. The White House readout said that Trump discussed “numerous subjects” with Erdogan, including ways to resolve the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia while “ensuring that all countries work to stop terrorist funding and to combat extremist ideology”. It said Trump emphasised “the importance of all our allies and partners increasing their efforts to fight terrorism and extremism in all its forms.”

Turkey’s possible shift towards Russian alliance?

The US’ Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk also landed in Ankara. Turkey has threatened to go after the Syrian Kurds who are aligned with US in northern Syria. Interestingly, no sooner than the conversation with Trump ended, Erdogan telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin readout said, “The discussion focused on key aspects of the Syrian settlement in light of the upcoming fifth International Meeting on Syria in Astana, convened under the aegis of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the beginning of July.”

Read more: Rising tension between Russia and NATO

This was the second time in a week that the Turkish and Russian Presidents spoke with each other. Putin had phoned Erdogan on June 23 to mark the formal launch of construction work on the deep-water section of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline.

An unnamed Turkish ‘presidential source’ amplified later that Erdogan and Putin have decided to hold a “face-to-face” meeting on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg next week. By the way, this was the second time in a week that the Turkish and Russian Presidents spoke with each other. Putin had phoned Erdogan on June 23 to mark the formal launch of construction work on the deep-water section of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline. The 900-kiolmetre undersea pipeline, estimated to cost around $13 billion will supply Russian gas to Turkey and southern Europe. The first leg of the pipeline will be ready next year and the second one in late 2019.

Turkey has been historically an indomitable rival.

The transcript of the conversation, here, on June 23 gives a flavor of the phenomenal transformation of Russo-Turkish relations. Putin and Erdogan are stakeholders here at a personal level in navigating the choppy waters after the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkey in November 2015. For Russia, Turkey has been historically an indomitable rival. For Turkey, of course, its ‘Look East’ creates space for it to negotiate effectively with nettlesome, finicky, unkind western partners.

There are indeed many layers to the Russo-Turkish relations – overlapping interests in Syria and Eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea and the Balkans, Caucasus etc., mutually beneficial economic cooperation, Iran’s rise as regional power, Islamism in the Middle East, energy security and so on – but the crux of the matter is that the deepening chill in Russian-American relations coincided with the surge of the contradictions in the Turkish-American relations. Thus, Turkey’s decision to choose Russia’s S-400 Triumph Air Defence system is both symbolic and strategic.

Erdogan is asserting his independent foreign policies and flaunting his strategic defiance of the US. The decision to acquire the Russian ABM system is a hugely consequential one because by placing the Russian weaponry on its soil, Turkey shall no longer have access to the NATO signals, while for NATO, in the event of a regional conflict, its aerial assets will not be able to operate in the vicinity of the Russian S-400 system deployed in Turkey.

Read more: Russian defense minister warns NATO against prodding Russian bear

Turkey’s plan is to eventually develop these capabilities on its own, which means it is opting for a large-scale Russia-related program that will not be “inter-operable” with the NATO system.

Indeed, Turkey and NATO are entering unchartered waters. Air defence architecture is not a “stand-alone” system like a battle tank. For realistically intercepting an incoming enemy ballistic missile, it typically requires early warning data from military satellites with advanced detection capabilities. Turkey’s plan is to eventually develop these capabilities on its own, which means it is opting for a large-scale Russia-related program that will not be “inter-operable” with the NATO system. All in all, the S-400 deal will lead to a strategic tie-up between Russia and Turkey in the defence field, which will lead to the sale of further Russian systems and military technology to Turkey.

But, how scary is the S-400 Triumf (nicknamed ‘Grumpy’ by the NATO)? Make no mistake, it’s very scary indeed. According to an assessment a former pilot-instructor at the US Air Force Weapons School, it is “the most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range SAM (surface-to-air missile) in the world.” (Read it here.) Therefore, for Russia too, this must be a leap of faith insofar as it is handing over to a newfound friend such deadly weaponry. Partnerships involving the transfer of such highly advanced military technology are usually forged in the smithy of strategic trust evolved through years or decades of close cooperation – such as what Russia has with India or China, the two other countries which are potential recipients of this advanced Russian ABM system.

Read more: US and Russia: A meeting of two giants during G20 summit!

But then, Turkey is a major NATO power, second only to the US in conventional forces — and it is no small matter to get it to step out of the NATO tent for a partnership with the alliance’s principal adversary. In the process, Russia has also challenged the efficacy of the US strategy to create an arc around it with the NATO’s ABM system, apart from weakening the US’ game plan to establish a permanent presence in the Black Sea. A commentary by Xinhua uses an apt metaphor visualizing Russia as entering the NATO’s bedroom.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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