Delaying S-400s: A short-term or long-term move by Turkey?

Delaying S-400s: A short-term or long-term move by Turkey?

Under normal circumstances, one of the top issues we would be discussing today would have been Turkey’s activation of the Russian S-400 air defense systems and its repercussions on Ankara’s ties with its Western allies.

Statements issued by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2019 made clear that the Russian systems would be ready to be activated by April 2020, following the necessary technical preparations and training of the Turkish military personnel.

As can be recalled, the first and second batches of the sophisticated air defense systems have been deployed at a military base near Ankara in mid-2019. It had been reported that the accomplishment of the re-installation of the system and other technical processes would take some time before the S-400s would be fully ready to be operational.

Let’s recall that there is no yet any official statement by the Turkish government about the postponement of the systems. But there are strong signals to this end.

First, according to sources, presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın admitted that the activation of the S-400 systems will be postponed due to COVID-19 at an online meeting with the members of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) in mid-April. Second, a story run by Reuters, quoting an anonymous senior Turkish official, who suggested Turkey will postpone the activation due to the coronavirus has never been denied by Ankara.

The official underlined that there is “no going back on the decision to activate the S-400s” and envisaged that switching on the systems would take “several months,” according to Reuters.

A Turkish decision to purchase, deploy and activate the S-400 systems from Russia has long been at the core of Turkey’s strained relationship with the United States and the Western partners at NATO. Despite sanctions and threats from its allies, Turkey has always underlined that “it was a done deal” and there would be no step back from the procurement of the Russian system.

All these were in the pre-coronavirus world. Many analysts and experts predict that the pandemic will have drastic impacts on the world order both in terms of politics and economy and Turkey’s decision to delay the activation of the Russian systems would be very much related to this fact.

On top of the concerns is the economy. Like the rest of the world, Turkey is struggling with dire impacts of the measures taken against the spread of the virus on its already vulnerable economy. It needs a good amount of financial support to keep the economy functioning and help each and every household suffering from the crisis. There are reports that Turkey is in talks with many countries via the Central Bank to generate cash flow to tackle the liquidity problem.

The second concern stems from the fact that the activation of the systems will leave no room for maneuvering for U.S. President Donald Trump who has been using his power to waive the sanctions against Turkey through the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Already in a difficult situation due to his failure to fight the virus, Trump would have no powers to resist bipartisan pressure from Congress to sanction Turkey, especially on the eve of November presidential elections.

No need to re-emphasize how destructive the activation of U.S. sanctions on the Turkish economy would be, as was seen in August 2018.
The third is about the future setting of the world order. Many analysts predict that the post-pandemic world will likely observe a new Cold War, pitting the U.S. against China with substantial impacts on the global security balance as well as trade and economy. The rest of the world will re-calibrate their position in accordance with this new fueled competition between two economic giants, and Turkey will be no different.

A decision to delay the activation of the S-400 systems does, therefore, give Turkey time to observe the new trends and changes in the international arena. The question is now whether this is a short-term or long-term postponement?