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Questions remain, as Putin and Erdogan discuss S-400 Triumph SAMs

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara, Sep 28,2017. Photo: the Kremlin press office

Presidents of Russia and Turkey met on September 28 in Ankara “to make sure they are on the same page” about some bilateral and regional issues.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced one of the key issues on the agenda a few days before his talks with Vladimir Putin, the situation around Syria’s Idlib province.

This northern de-escalation zone in Syria appears to be the most problematic one comparing to the similar zones in central and southern parts of the Arab country.

During the most recent Russia-Turkey high-level meeting, Syria was the priority issue. Little has changed since them, though many observes still focus on another issue on the Russia-Turkey agenda.

As the sides announced earlier, the contacts on sale of Russian S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey had been signed already. Erdogan confirmed reports on the contract in a statement made two months before the meeting with Putin. Russian Federal Service on the Military and Technical Cooperation has confirmed the information without going into details in view of “specifics and sensitiveness of the issue” and “the priority right of the foreign client to comment on the contract.”

No details on the arms deal were made public after the meeting of Putin and Erdogan either. No additional information has been provided in addition to the previous reports on acquisition of 4 Russian S-400 air defense systems for over $2 billion.

The issue is, in fact, very sensitive and politicized, which is within the interests of Moscow and Ankara. For instance, Erdogan’s statement on announcement on the contact was not only untimely, but also contained quite clear political message to Ankara’s NATO allies.

Erdogan announced the deal on acquisition of S-400 Triumph air defense systems yet on July 25 (on September 12, he said about advanced payment for the missile systems). Earlier on July 14, the Defense Ministry of Turkey announced the agreement signed with Italian-French Eurosam manufacturer of air defense missiles to launch development of a Turkish air defense missile systems. Under the contract, Turkish companies will be cooperating with Eurosam to manufacture SAMP/T long-range missiles on the basis of Aster-30 missile series operated by some NATO countries.

The message was not so much addressed to European allies to make them stop “irritating” the wounded pride of the Turkish authorities. It was addressed to U.S. which opposes combination of Russian missiles systems and the NATO air defense systems, though Ankara regularly points at existence of S-300 missile systems in Greece.

During the recent years of critical situation in the Middle East and in the southern underbelly of Turkey, U.S. has given Turkey too many reasons for irritation. Erdogan uses the deal with Russian to revenge Washington for continuous “humiliation” by growing arms supplies to Kurds and actual refusal to extradite Erdogan’s “No.1 enemy” Islamic prophet Fethullah Gulen, who migrated to U.S. in 1999 and is accused in Turkey of creating FETO “terrorist organization.”

As to Moscow’s interest in Erdogan’s anti-Western sentiments, the deal on “Triumphs” was a good chance. NATO’s Middle East flank is getting farther and farther from NATO’s influence center in U.S. and Western Europe. Supplying advanced missile systems to Turkey and with potential provision of some manufacture technologies is rather a risky undertaking. After all, it would be reckless removing NATO-member Turkey from the list of Russia’s potential military rivals in the long-term outlook, considering the current differences in the two countries’ stances on a series of regional problems. However, it appears to the Kremlin that the game is worth the candle now and for the foreseeable future.

Turkey still speaks of Crimea’s annexation not to favor its American and European partners but because of its own vision of the problem. This is Ankara’s “geopolitical independent activity” mixed up in Turkish nationalism and Erdogan’s efforts to come out as Islam’s defender. This bears no relation to anti-Russian strategy of NATO’s key personnel. The fact that Turkey has not joined anti-Russian sanctions of the West is already a reason for Russia to demonstrate a special attitude to it, despite all problems in their relations.

Kurds in Syria and Iraq is another issue on which Moscow and Ankara have different stances. These differences have become even deeper after Putin’s visit to Turkey. The Kremlin still does not consider the activity of Kurds as a destabilizing factor in the Middle East. The arms deal with Turkey did not make Putin turn his back to Kurds.

The two leaders discussed the supply of Triumph SAMs on September 28, of course, but they did not mention the deal in their statements for the press. The meeting of the two presidents lasted for about 1.5-hour, which was insufficient to dwell upon all the issues on regional and bilateral agenda. They might even talk about the ban on export Turkish tomatoes to Russia more than about supply of S-400 SAMs. Anyway, implementation of the “Triumphs” deal needs well-thought steps.

The deal (if it is documented as such) is of preliminary nature. The sides have not specified the supply terms or provision of manufacture technologies. Earlier, the Turkish Defense Ministry Secretariat for Defense Industry reported that the supplies of Russian SAMs will be launched within two years.

The financial aspect of the deal is not clear either. Turkey requires a loan for acquisition of the Russian SAMs. On what terms and guarantees is Russia ready to supply air defense systems to Ankara?

There are more questions than specific data on the deal. Judging from Vladimir Putin’s previous statements, the Russian leadership is not going to make any hasty decisions, much less related to Turkey’s plans to localize assembly/manufacture of C-400 SAMs.

Earlier, Putin had confirmed the talks on Triumph systems: “We discussed the possibility of selling S-400 systems. We are ready for this. As for cooperation, this is a separate issue related to the Turkish industry’s readiness. We do not produce such hardware anywhere abroad so far," the Russian president said. "This has been going on for decades and therefore, requires large-scale technological preparation and personnel training," the Russian leader said on June 1.

EADaily has already reported about the problems with implementation of the S-400 supply deal. To recall, once Moscow rejected Ankara’s request for an access to the manufacture technologies for S-300 missiles series (S-300VM, Antey-2500). In this content, such a U-turn by the Russian leadership seems at least strange, considering that the defense industry sector takes all possible measures to prevent leakage of its advanced technologies. Meantime, localization of S-400 SAMs by NATO-member Turkey may result in such leakage.

Earlier we have already said that implementation of the contract may be divided into two components. At first, Moscow may supply two S-400 SAMs. The second phase – supply of the other two systems – may take “decades.” Hereby Moscow will make it clear to Ankara that its ambitious plans to localize manufacture of the Russian missile technologies are not likely to come true any time soon. This is a delicate recommendation to scale back ambitions and focus on supply of the SAMs.

Noteworthy that Russia still has to implement some previous contracts with China and India on supply of S-400 SAMs. Russia and China had negotiated for over three years to make the contract (in 2014).

Besides, the native defense industry (Concern Almaz-Antey) has a priority order to supply S-400 SAMs to the Russian army, specifically four new “regiment sets” by the end of the year. On the day of Putin’s visit to Ankara, field firing exercises with the use of S-400 SAMs were held at Ashuluk military polygon in Astrakhan region, Russia.

Russia needs to end the stalemate in the military-technical cooperation with Turkey. Buying 80 pieces of Kornet-E anti-tank systems in 2008, Ankara stalemated the cooperation with Moscow in the field. Besides, Russia needs to show U.S. and Europe the limits of their anti-Russian plans by using ongoing discrepancies of Ankara and the West.

Noteworthy is the format of the two presidents’ meeting in Ankara. Erdogan should have had serious offers to make Putin spent several hours on an official dinner in Ankara. Another matter that Ankara’s offers are not always welcome by the Kremlin.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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