Bottom Line Up Front
- On the heels of its suspension from the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program, Turkey is now reportedly considering joint development of its own fighter jet with Russia.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the suspension as an opportunity for Russia to capitalize on Turkey’s rift with the West.
- But for all of their cooperation on military equipment, Turkey and Russia remain at odds over how to approach Syria.
- Turkey will likely continue to move away from the West and toward Russia, as Erdogan continues his slide toward autocracy in a country that was long hailed as a model of democracy for the region.
On the heels of its suspension from the F-35 fighter jets program with the United States, Turkey is now reportedly considering joint development of its own fighter jet with Russia. This move would reinforce Ankara’s drift away from the West and toward Moscow. The United States kicked Turkey out of its F-35 program when it learned that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted delivery of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. The Russian air defense system is designed, in part, to shoot down NATO aircraft, making it a particularly odd acquisition for a NATO member. The talk of developing a new jet has been accompanied by public statements from leading Turkish officials about considering the purchase of other Russian fighter aircraft, the Su-35, and even the advanced SU-57. If Ankara participated in the program, it would have played a significant role in the production and acquisition of F-35s, America’s high profile, next-generation fighter jet.
In the last week of August, Erdogan traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Talks reportedly focused on two issues: increasing Turkish ties to Russian military hardware, and the two countries’ opposing stances on the Syrian civil war. The two leaders attended an air show, during which Erdogan casually inquired about the purchase the new SU-57. Turkey seems to have made a strategic decision to become more closely aligned with Russia, especially on military equipment. Relations between Turkey and the West have been deteriorating for years, culminating in the failed July 2016 coup, for which Erdogan blames outside interference. Putin perceived an opening following the coup and has adroitly maneuvered Russian influence to capitalize upon Turkey’s rift with the West. In the zero-sum nature of Russian foreign policy, any setback for NATO and the West is an advantage for the Kremlin.
But for all of their cooperation on military equipment, Turkey and Russia remain at odds over how to approach Syria. Turkey is a staunch supporter of anti-Assad rebels and is growing more concerned over the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib Province. Russia has stepped up airstrikes in northwest Syria, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure, including hospitals and medical clinics. Just recently, a Turkish convoy was bombed, leading to a harsh exchange of words between Turkish officials and the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis. Turkey also protested the Russian-backed offensive near Khan Sheikhoun as a violation of the Sochi agreement, which was intended to push for de-escalation. Erdogan met with Putin in Moscow to call for restraint, although little seems to have changed as the suffering continues apace for the nearly 3 million people living in Idlib. The Russians have criticized Turkey for their unwillingness to deal effectively with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
While Washington continues to refer to Turkey as a valued member of NATO, it acknowledges that the delivery of the S-400 system is a major issue that will have to be addressed. Ankara and Washington have clashed over Syria policy and the issue of Kurdish rebels, with Erdogan recently threatening to launch his own operation to establish a safe zone in northern Syria if an agreement cannot be reached with the U.S. Turkey is also at odds with the EU over natural gas development off the coast of Cyprus and the influx of refugees remains a constant source of geopolitical and humanitarian concern. Turkey will likely continue to move away from the West and toward Russia, as Erdogan continues his slide toward autocracy and strong-man rule in a country that was long hailed as a model of democracy for the region.