If Donald Trump was looking to embolden Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the two met at the G20, he has succeeded.
After months of speculation, Turkey has taken delivery of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, a clear sign that Erdogan believes his relationship with the US president will help Ankara avoid US sanctions.
News that the S-400 deliveries started today crossed the wires at about 3:40 AM in New York. The lira immediately retreated against the dollar, a reflection that markets still believe Ankara’s belligerence on the matter won’t go unanswered in Washington.
Later, Tass reported that Russia will ship 120 guided missiles for the the air defense systems to Turkey later this summer. Some 80 Turkish troops will head to Russia for training this month or next. 20 were trained in May and June.
Ankara said the systems will be used once installation is completed. Turkey appeared to openly flaunt the news. Videos of the delivery planes were widely circulated.
To say this is a bold maneuver by Erdogan would be to understate the case. To be sure, he has repeatedly insisted that he intends to get his S-400s come hell or high sanctions, but most thought he would eventually back down, knowing that Washington would likely try to cripple Turkey’s economy if the deal went through.
But Trump appeared to green light the deal during his pow wow with Erdogan in Osaka. “We have a very complicated situation because the president was not allowed to buy the Patriot missiles”, Trump said, effectively blaming Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian equipment on the previous administration. “Honestly… it’s not really Erdogan’s fault”, he added.
And so, a NATO ally is armed with Russian missile systems which, presumably, pose a serious risk of Moscow using the technology to gather information. The US has variously insisted that taking delivery of the S-400s would lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program and, likely, to stiff sanctions. “Officials say they do not want the F-35 jets to be near S-400 systems because they feared Russian technicians would be able to access the F-35’s vulnerabilities”, BBC reminds you.
Having received Trump’s tacit blessing in Japan late last month, Erdogan is now prepared to test Washington’s resolve, setting up yet another diplomatic row with the potential to be even more bitter than last summer’s Andrew Brunson standoff. When the US slapped sanctions on Turkey last year in an effort to secure Brunson’s release, Erdogan had just installed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as economic czar. Last weekend, Erdogan and Albayrak fired Turkey’s central bank governor throwing the lira for yet another loop, just when it appeared the currency was set to stabilize and the economic situation was improving. In other words, this situation is eerily reminiscent of the setup that saw the lira plunge last August.
The currency was actually holding up pretty well after stumbling hard in the initial knee-jerk reaction to the central bank news.
That relative resilience will now be tested, as will Ankara’s relationship with Washington.
Who knows, perhaps there’s a grand plan here. “This story is so incredible. It makes me wonder whether Trump, and the Israeli lobby in the US do actually want Turkey off the F-35 project, and in fact out of NATO”, an incredulous Tim Ash, of BlueBay, mused on Friday. “Did Turkey just fall into this trap?”