As more countries opt for the Russian long-range missiles, Washington faces a difficult choice over whether to penalise its key partners.
On July 12, doubts over Turkey’s intention to buy Russian surface-to-air missiles were settled. As the images of trucks carrying S-400 launchpads disembarking from huge cargo planes were shown on television channels and the internet, it became obvious that Turkey has taken the inevitable step despite threats of sanctions from the US.
For Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter, this could well open the doors to secure more orders for its long-range missile technology, which is designed to take on multiple targets at a given time.
China already has S-400 surface-to-air missiles, while India is expected to receive the first shipment next year after signing a $5 billion contract.
“In Russia this [Turkey deal] is seen as a major defence sales victory because S-400 is not just an air defense system but perceived as a strategic arms purchase,” says Michael Kofman, a security analyst who focuses on Russia.
“As such it's perceived to be a signal by Turkey that it is hedging, diversifying relations from the United States to upgrade its relationship with Moscow.” Russia already has customers for both conventional weapons and high-tech defence systems in the Middle East and Africa region.
The S-300s, an earlier version of S-400 missile system, are already deployed in 14 countries including Algeria, Greece, Bulgaria, Belarus, Egypt, Syria and Vietnam. Some of them might want upgrades.
But the US has threatened to use its financial and diplomatic power to restrict such hi-tech, long-range missile deals as well as purchases of competing fighter jets like the Sukhoi SU-57, experts say.
The Countering America’s Adversary through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) allows the US government to penalise countries making “significant transactions” with Russia’s state-owned defence companies.
“Some countries in the Gulf have expressed interest in the S-400s. But this has to be weighed against the American pressure,” says Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, heavily reliant on the American security guarantee, would not strain ties with Washington by making high-end purchases from Russia, he says.
Some countries such as India will go ahead with the S-400 nevertheless. And that’s where US policymakers have to make difficult decisions.
“This is a process, which can backfire on the United States because a lot of these countries are its partners and sanctions can drive them away,” says Lamrani.
“The reality is that countries are hesitant to allow another country to dictate what kind of armament they buy.”
That desire to reduce reliance on a sole power is evident in different countries. Egypt, a long-time recipient of the US aid, is increasingly talking to Russia to meet some of its defence needs.
Cairo bought 76 percent of its arms and equipment from the US between 2008 and 2011. That figure came down to 49 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Washington also has its long-term interests to consider when threatening sanctions. For instance, it wants India as a counterweight to China in the region and sanctions over the S-400 purchase could undermine its efforts, says Lamrani.
“But just because CAATSA says that the US will impose sanctions if you buy from Russia does not necessarily mean it will follow through on those threats” he added.
When it comes to economic and financial penalties, Washington has given waivers in the past such as when it allowed Iraq to continue buying energy from Iran.
The Patriot Vs S-400
Unlike the American Patriots missiles, the S-400s have yet to be tested in the battlefield, something that has cast doubts about the system’s ability.
But analysts say considering the Russian expertise and the specifications, the S-400 appears to be more lethal in taking down jets and ballistic missiles.
“Russia has been investing in the air defence systems since the 50s. These technologies rely a lot on previous investment. Think about computers. Apple is still very good because it has accumulated a lot of experience over the past 40 plus years,” says Mauro Gilli, a senior researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
“Based on all the time and money that Russia has invested in the past so many years, this will be very good.”
The defence exports are the second highest revenue earner for Russia after oil and gas. For years, Moscow has used those earnings to fund research and development of more advanced weapons.
Securing new orders especially becomes crucial since Russia’s international sale of arms and equipment dropped 17 percent between 2014 and 2018, mainly because of a slide in orders from India and Venezuela.
A tense relationship
In June 2012, a Syrian missile shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane over the Mideterranian. The incident alarmed Ankara, which had historically relied on its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to protect its airspace.
The Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles installed around Istanbul during the Cold War days were old and many of them had been retired by then.
Turkey had the US-made Patriot missiles but they didn’t cover the country’s entire expanse of more than 783,000 square kilometers.
In subsequent years, Turkish officials considered other alternatives such as the Chinese HQ-9, a missile system similar in capability to the S-300. However, NATO wasn’t happy about it, saying the Chinese technology could compromise the alliance’s defence capability.
Now after years of back-and-forth discussions, threats and uncertainty, Turkey finally went ahead with the S-400s.
Turkey’s decision became big news for another reason. Besides being an old NATO member, it was part of the multinational plan to develop the next-generation F-35 jet.
“The US has already responded by booting Turkey from the F-35 programme, which is exactly what Turkey was told would happen. Next question is if CAATSA legislation will be used to impose sanctions on Turkey in response as well,” says Kofman.
“I suspect this will be a political argument between the Trump administration and Congress in Washington.”