Expert: Opposition to S-400s is political, not technical
Last Friday night I watched the 2016 American movie “LBJ” about the U.S.’s 36th president.
“The southerners don’t speak Kennedy, and the Kennedys don’t speak southern. I am the only one fluent in both languages,” says Lyndon Baines Johnson to explain his mission to mediate between the Kennedy administration and the democrats from the south opposing a bill granting equal rights to black Americans.
By coincidence I had interviewed Professor Mustafa Kibaroğlu the same afternoon who had told me that while being a part of the Western Alliance, Turkey had good working relationship with Russia and that it could mediate in the nuclear standoff that is looming on the horizon. Indeed Turkey is fluent in both languages of the two worlds, in terms of understanding their sensitivities, the way they perceive the world and the way they do business.
But I told him that the West doesn’t trust Turkey due to its insistence of purchasing the S-400 anti-ballistic missile system from Russia.
Professor Kibaroğlu, who has been following for nearly three decades Turkey’s foreign and defense policies as well as global arms control regimes, believes Western allies have dragged their foot despite Turkey’s strong willingness to purchase the anti-ballistic missile system from them. It is only natural in Kibaroğlu’s view for Turkey to look for alternatives especially when NATO’s missile shield does not fully cover Turkey.
“The West is concerned that the deployment of the S-400’s will jeopardize NATO’s security, claiming Russians can get hold of sensitive information,” I reminded him.
“The Turkish defense industry is fully confident they can technically prevent such a possibility,” said Kibaroğlu, adding that when he conveyed this information to a “very high level” NATO executive, the answer he got was “yes, this is technically possible but this is a political issue. We cannot politically accept it.”
“This is not a valid argument. Do they think that a NATO member like Turkey will turn a blind eye to information leakages to Russia via the S-400s? This is a huge insult,” said Kibaroğlu.
Currently the system purchased from Russia does not fully answer Turkey’s anti-missile defense needs, according to Kibaroğlu. As it is mobile it will be used as a standalone system and will contribute only partially as deterrence. “Turkey’s anti-ballistic defense needs continue. Without getting stuck on the purchase of the S-400s the West should come up with serious proposals,” he argued.
But at that point there seems to be a fundamental reserve that keeps especially the American administration from sharing sensitive technology which is a condition for Turkey to purchase the systems: Distrust of Turkey, which, according to Kibaroğlu, is not limited to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments.
“Ever since Turkey started to show interest in nuclear energy, some of our allies harbored the fear that it can turn its gains from peaceful use to military use. The U.S. sees no problem in sharing technology with so many countries whose strategic importance is no way near that of Turkey’s. But when it comes to Turkey, the administration keeps playing the Congress’ opposition against us. I believe this is not related to the current government; that was the case before 2002 as well. There is a concern that if it gets too powerful, Turkey will not be easily contained, that it will pursue policies that will not be to the interest of big powers and that’s why they don’t want to share strategic weapons systems.”
If this distrust existed even before the previous administrations, there is no doubt that this distrust got even bigger during the AK Party governance. While it did make mistakes, it would be unfair to put the blame on the widening distrust solely on the AK Party governments.