Russian weapons and proxy fights add to tensions in one of the world’s ‘most kinetic areas’

  • Reports that Turkey activated a Russian-made air-defence system to track US-built fighter jets raised hackles in Washington, which is pressuring Ankara to get rid of the system.
  • The reports have also added to existing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea region, where Turkey has a number of disputes with its neighbours, including its NATO allies.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A report this week that Turkey activated a Russian-made air-defence system to track Greek fighter jets raised US ire and added to tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, an increasingly troublesome region for NATO.

Greek outlet reported Monday that Turkey activated radars on its S-400s to track Greece’s US-made F-16 fighter jets as they returned from a multinational exercise near Cyprus on August 27.

Turkey’s 2017 purchase of the S-400 has been a problem for the US from the start. Its delivery in July 2017 prompted the US to kick Ankara out of the F-35 program, citing concerns Russia could use the system to gather data on the jet.

Turkey’s tests of the S-400 with its own F-16s late last year were also seen as an implicit threat by some in Congress.

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S-400 air-defence missile systems in Moscow’s Red Square during the Victory Day parade, May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

It remains unclear if Turkey actually did activate its S-400s to track the Greek jets, and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Republican Sen. James Lankford want answers from the Trump administration.

“Reports of this activation make clear that Turkey has no intention of reversing course and divesting of this system,” the senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Additionally, the slow pace at which the Department of Defence is moving to remove Turkey from the F-35 supply chain has no doubt emboldened [Turkish] President Erdogan.”

The senators said the reports added to concerns “about Russia’s ability to access sensitive data.” They asked Pompeo for more information about the August 27 incident as well as whether Turkey has integrated the S-400 with NATO’s Link 16 tactical data link and if that access facilitates Russian intelligence-gathering.

A State Department spokesperson said they were “aware of these reports” and “deeply concerned” about Turkey continuing work on the S-400.

Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 program “signalled the seriousness with which the administration approaches this issue,” the spokesperson said.

Not the normal process

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US and Turkish vehicles during rehearsals at Gaziantep, Turkey, October 14, 2018. US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

Southeastern Europe has become a troublesome front for NATO.

Russian activity there has been a major concern, prompting Adm. James Foggo, former head of US naval forces in Europe, to call the Eastern Mediterranean “one of the most kinetic areas in the world” in a June speech. But Turkey’s actions have made it a thorn in the side of its NATO allies.

Turkey has clashed with the US and its European neighbours over the war in Syria. The Libyan civil war has become a point of contention, as shown by a June incident in which Turkish warships escorting an arms shipment to Libya reportedly harassed a French frigate on a NATO patrol. (France has also taken a more aggressive approach to disputes in the Mediterranean.)

Tensions have risen between Turkey and Greece, historic foes and NATO members, over a longstanding territorial dispute in the Mediterranean, though NATO said this month that they had agreed on a mechanism “to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

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President Donald Trump with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embraced that vision after a failed coup in 2016, scorned by what he saw as a lack of a strong response by other Western countries.

After that coup, Erdogan “dramatically reduced the independence” of the Turkish military, said Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army in Europe between 2015 and 2017.

“Many officers who had longtime NATO or Western relationships, a lot of them are gone now,” Hodges told Insider. “You still have the same very professional, talented, competent Turkish military, but you can tell that they are extremely cautious about saying anything or doing anything that would be seen as not 100% in line with what would be expected from Ankara.”

Erdogan’s frustration with NATO allies over issues like the war in Syria as well as their reluctance to provide Ankara with other air-defence systems has been cited as motivation for the S-400 purchase.

During a discussion of the S-400 at a recent meeting that included retired Turkish military officers, Hodges said he was told that the purchase “was a decision made by the administration, not an institutional decision.”

“In other words, it was not the normal procurement process,” Hodges said.

Allies gnawing on each other

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A new S-400 surface-to-air missile system at a military base in Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar

In their letter, Van Hollen and Lankford noted that the Trump administration hasn’t sanctioned Turkey for the S-400 purchase under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, which is meant to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election and has been used to sanction buyers of Russian arms.

The US continues “to stress at the highest levels” that the S-400 is “a major obstacle” in Turkey’s relations with the US and NATO and risks CAATSA sanctions, the State Department spokesperson said.

Van Hollen and Lankford also expressed concern about reports of an S-400 test planned next week in the Turkish city of Sinop, on the Black Sea, where US and NATO aircraft are very active. (Russia has S-400s in Crimea and its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, both near where NATO aircraft are active.)

Turkey said in March that the US offered to sell it the Patriot missile-defence system if it wouldn’t operate the S-400. Turkish officials said they were evaluating the offer but hadn’t changed their plans for the S-400.

Hodges said a test next week would be “a mistake” and hoped that the US was looking for ways to give Turkey “an offramp.”

Only Russia benefits from this dispute, Hodges added, “because they’re seeing two NATO allies gnawing on each other, and this is an erosion of the trust between Turkey and the rest of Europe.”