Despite possible differences existing between Turkey and Russia over Idlib – differences that result from somewhat diverging ways of handling the last major bastion of jihadi stronghold in Syria – the fact that both countries continue to engage diplomatically and enhance the scope of diplomatic and military cooperation shows how deeply they value their bilateral relations and how eager they are to further expand and deepen their ties. For the West, particularly the NATO, this growing relationship and the resilience it continues to show is an alarming sign. Erdogan is gradually transforming into a ‘Putin’s man’ inside NATO, making him into a potential set-back that the organisation might be unable to tackle by simply ending Turkey’s NATO membership due to its structural constraints. All the West/NATO can try to do is not to alienate Turkey any further. However, the exact opposite continues to happen, creating more and more space for Putin to offer both ice cream and 5th generation jets to Turkey to make sure that Turkey stays on the Russian side in the geo-political chessboard of the Middle East.
Erdogan’s recent visit to Russia was, in this context, a major event in that it came during the on-going Syrian-Russian combined offensive in Idlib. Putin’s soft-politics of offering Erdogan ice cream and the hard-politics of showing and offering 5th generation Russian jets i.e., Su-35 and Su-57, which are very much Russia’s answer to the US/NATO F-35 aircraft, did not fail to catch the West’s attention. This visit, coming right after the delivery of S-400 missile defence system to Turkey, has also showed that the military cooperation between the second biggest military power of NATO and Russia was just beginning to expand and that there was no end in sight despite the tactical differences existing between the countries over Idlib.
Significantly enough, it is this cooperation that has put Turkey’s relations with the US and NATO on a tight rope in the first place. All this has been going on against the backdrop of Washington’s offer to Turkish for it to play a role in the manufacturing of a great many of the F-35’s components, including parts of the fuselage. And even through could have reaped billions of dollars in export sales and acquired critical technological know-how in the armaments industry, which would have been a major boost to its own defence industry, it chose a different path, mainly due to its insistence on acquiring S-400 missile defence systems.
This resulted in Washington choosing to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program that opened up yet another opportunity for Russia to offer Turkey its own 5th generation fighter jets. As far as Turkey is concerned, it sent a clear message to the US: the F-35 could be replaced by the Su-57 just like the Patriot system was replaced by the S-400. Ankara was planning to buy some 100 F-35s and was part of the multinational fighter development programme from its inception more than 25 years ago.
The message came against the context of an unchanged US position vis-à-vis Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile system. On August 29, 2019 the US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in a press briefing that as long as Turkey continues to insist on its purchase of S-400, it would not be allowed to return to F-35 program. To quote Esper:
“I’ve been very clear in both my public comments and privately with my Turkish counterpart: it’s either the F-35 or the S-400. It’s not both. It’s not parking one in the garage, and roll the other one out. It’s one or the other,” Esper said. “So we are where we are and it’s regrettable. As I’ve said, Turkey’s been a long-standing, a great partner and ally, and I would hope that they would move back in our direction and really live up to what NATO agreed to many years ago, and that was to begin divesting of Soviet-era Russian equipment,” he added further.
But Turkey made it clear while it still considers itself a part of F-35 programme, it would, said Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, look for alternatives, including the Russian ones, if the US/NATO ultimately block the sale of F-35 jets.
And, Russian offer of defence cooperation doesn’t end with an offer of Su-35 and Su-57. Hitting at Turkey’s increasing appetite for moving away from the West, Russia also offered Turkey to help build its own first national combat aircraft TF-X. Significantly enough, this particular offer has a geo-political dimension in that Turkey intends to use TF-X as a potential replacement of its US-made F-16 fighter jets. Again, Russian offer of cooperation in building TF-X comes at a time when the British engine maker Rolls Royce announced in March that it had scaled back the project for developing the engine of TF-X due to Turkey’s decision to side with Russia.
In this context, what becomes clear is that the depth, enhancement and resilience that Russia-Turkey bilateral relations have acquired is largely due to the US/NATO’s inability to let Turkey pursue its foreign policy independently. A US/NATO resolve to put pressure on Turkey to literally end its relations with Russia to be able to access western technology is a blackmail that continues to drive Turkey farther away from the West towards the East, making Erdogan develop his own taste of Russian things, including the ice cream and the state of the art defence technology.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.