Turkey's New Missiles

What the S-400 Means for Ankara and NATO

Erdogan shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara, September 2017. Reuters

On September 12, 2017, Turkey signed and made a deposit toward a $2.5 billion agreement to purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Russia will sell Turkey two batteries and transfer the technology for Ankara to produce two of its own, while Turkey will supply the batteries’ target-identification software. As Pentagon officials have noted, the S-400 is not interoperable with NATO’s air defense system, causing some experts to speculate about Turkey’s relationship with the alliance.

The S-400, a state-of-the-art missile defense system, is overkill in defending against non-state armed groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) or the Kurds. It also represents a massive political and economic investment for Turkey, which has been looking to improve its missile defense systems since the 1990s. Ankara’s decision to go to Russia for this acquisition suggests, moreover, a lingering frustration with NATO.

The alliance is supposed to protect Turkey from external threats, and in recent years Ankara’s concerns about the Syrian war have led it to repeatedly invoke Article Four of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires NATO members to “consult together whenever… the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” Since the beginning of the Syrian war, for instance, Turkey advocated for a no-fly zone in Syria that was eventually thwarted by the United States. These cases seem to have convinced Turkey that it needs to look out for itself.

The S-400 will also bolster Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy agenda, granting Ankara greater freedom to conduct itself abroad. In addition to its involvement in Syria, Turkey has shown interest in mediating in Afghanistan, supporting the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, playing a role in the dispute between Qatar and the bloc of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, and countering violent extremism in Somalia. By acquiring increased defense capabilities, Turkey is playing the long game, and enhancing its ability to respond to threats in a quickly evolving security environment.

Today, trust between Turkey and the

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