Sometime next month, Russia may begin shipping its S-400 air defence system to Turkey. It is a move that divides NATO, may see the Turkish military kicked out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project, and demonstrates just how central yet divisive high-tech weapons exports have become.
Throughout the Cold War, weapons shipments from both East and West were vital for entrenching alliances and establishing spheres of interest. While some nations – particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – embraced cutting-edge US technology, many others purchased Russian – hard-wearing, often cheaper equipment that came with wider Soviet diplomatic and economic support.
The world now is rather more complex. A growing number of countries, such as Turkey, Iraq and India, wish to hedge their bets and buy from both. That’s understandable – but changing technology brings further complications.
As the current US-Turkey row shows all too clearly, mixing and matching the latest Russian and US systems is something Washington does not take lightly. This week, Turkish pilots found themselves pulled from flying F-35s in Arizona, an apparent indication of just how seriously the United States takes the issue. If it goes ahead with the purchase, Ankara may also face US financial sanctions, inflicting further damage on an already fragile economy.
For Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, this appears a matter of pride. Having felt largely ignored by the United States over the Syria war, Turkey has found itself increasingly at loggerheads with Washington. That came to a head after an attempted coup in 2016, when Erdogan seems to have felt the United States was too slow in backing him.
In some ways, the S-400 is a poorly designed purchase for an insecure autocrat – particularly anyone whose deepest fear is that one day they might face US-backed “regime change”. Developed in the nineties and refined with lessons from the 1999 Kosovo war, it is intended to provide an integrated air defence that would prevent US or other forces from seizing air superiority as quickly as they did in Kosovo or the two Gulf wars. Amongst other attributes, that means its users – and almost certainly also its Russian manufacturers – can share data and insights, boosting their preparedness for any attack.
That capability, of course, is key to the current US-Turkish standoff. America’s greatest worry is that once Turkey takes delivery of its F-35s – and then uses them in simulated wargames with the S-400 – it will inevitably learn ways in which the aircraft’s stealth characteristics can be detected and targeted. If Russia were to gain that information – and some analysts suspect it might be transferred almost immediately from the S-400’s networks – then the technical edge of one of the most expensive aircraft in recent history would be lost.
Already, US and other NATO officials are concerned enough about Russia’s spreading influence, not to mention the way in which regional powers are turning to Russian and Chinese technology over US systems. Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India are amongst US allies reported to be considering the S-400.
Crucially, none of those states is also part of the F-35 programme, meaning the level of concern over secrets being lost is inevitably much lower. Still, the growth of Russian and Chinese arms sales in the region is a clear sign of diminishing US influence.
After Washington refused to sell armed predator drones to countries in the region, several states – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq – have purchased armed Chinese UAVs that are now a frequent sight in the skies over war zones such as Yemen. Simpler Russian and Chinese technology is also sometimes simply faster to get into service – the most striking example being Iraq’s Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft, bought from Moscow in 2014 at the height of the Islamic State advance and thrown into action mere days later.
For Beijing and particularly Moscow, conflict in the Middle East makes it an appealing sales destination, both for otherwise obsolete equipment and cutting-edge new platforms.
In Syria, Moscow has made a highly public point of testing a number of new weapons systems, including unmanned tanks, as well as getting its commanders experience in the messy realities of modern warfare.
Fundamentally, such activity in Syria and the Turkey S-400 sale are signs of Moscow’s geopolitical posturing, demonstrating the ability of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian state to extend its will across the Middle East. And perhaps equally importantly, the inability of the United States to stop it.
When it comes to the S-400s, that puts Erdogan in an awkward position. If he cancels the purchase, he will look weak and burn down his relationship with Moscow. If he goes ahead, however, Washington has a vested interest in exacting a high price, making sure that Turkey regrets its decision.
None of it does anything to solve the problems of the Middle East. But it feels like yet another sign of rising international rivalry quietly running ever more out-of-control.