US-Turkish relations are once again taking a turn for the worse after America angrily criticized Ankara for testing its S-400s last week. Turkey has been in possession of these systems for quite a while already which raise the question of why it chose this particular moment to test them. The answer likely has a lot to do with its “balancing” act between the US and Russia, whereby it didn’t want to test the S-400s earlier to avoid a further deterioration in its ties with America but recently realized that it’s worth taking that risk in order to reassure Russia at a pivotal juncture in their relationship that the country is no longer the fierce rival that some commentators portray it as. Some in Russia have lately started wondering whether Moscow’s unprecedentedly close partnership with Ankara in recent years is a mistake considering their competing interests in key conflicts, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh Continuation War, but Turkey seemingly sought to put those concerns to rest by showing that it’ll risk its delicate “balancing” act with the US for the sake of reinforcing ties with Russia.
Turkish-American ties are complicated, but their primary problems boil down to the lack of trust stemming from the US’ support of armed Kurdish militias in Syria that Ankara regards as terrorists and the speculation that Washington played a direct or indirect role over the summer 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan. From these crucial points of divergence, their relationship has rapidly deteriorated to the point of impacting other dimensions of their partnership. There’s even a visible attempt by the US to assemble an anti-Turkish regional coalition comprising the GCC, “Nagorno-Karabakh Continuation War”, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and arguably Armenia too. Still, the US isn’t “throwing Turkey away” just yet since it’s reluctant to push it into Russia’s (and perhaps even China’s) arms, hence why it’s taking a more gradual approach in recalibrating their relations. There’s always also the chance for an unexpected breakthrough to emerge from the chaotic transformation that the international system is presently experiencing so it would be risky for either to pivot too quickly away from one another.
As for Russian-Turkish relations, most readers are aware of their centuries’ worth of wars, but both sides turned the page on their histories after resolving the November 2015 fighter jet incident and cooperating much more closely in Syria after the failed summer 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan. Since then, they’ve made impressive progress on the Turkish Stream pipeline, showed goodwill towards one another in attempting to broker peace in the Arab Republic through the Astana talks, and intensified their military-technical cooperation to the point where Russia even exported its S-400s to Turkey despite American threats not to. Nevertheless, ties remain tense in Syria where both sides are beginning to believe that the other isn’t sincere in “compromising” on their preferred outcome to the conflict, there are reports of an unofficial proxy war being waged in Libya, and now they’re locking horns over Nagorno-Karabakh, the latter of which could potentially pose a direct threat to Russian national security due to reports about Turkey sending foreign militants there.
It was against this uncertain backdrop that Turkey decided to test its S-400s in defiance of American pressure in order to send a positive signal towards Russia. Ankara’s intention was apparently to show Moscow that it will take certain risks to reinforce their bilateral relations, even if this jeopardizes the viability of its delicate “balancing” act with Washington. It’s also a reminder to its partner of how much the country cares about maintaining pragmatic relations with Russia despite their disagreements on key issues such as the three earlier mentioned conflicts and in particular the Nagorno-Karabakh Continuation War. There’s presently a very intense campaign being waged by certain lobbying forces sympathetic to Armenia to convince Russian decision makers that it was an historic mistake of epic proportions to ever believe that they could trust Turkey. It’s arguably in both countries’ best interests to ensure that these efforts fail otherwise they might create opportunities for the US to drive a deeper wedge between them in advance of its own interests as each of their expense.
It’s difficult for Russia to counter the public perception that its rivalry with Turkey is worsening by the day over their contradictory stances towards Nagorno-Karabakh, especially considering how influential these lobbying forces are in shaping domestic opinion at home. This puts the Kremlin in an uncomfortable position. It can either remain committed to strengthening ties with Turkey in spite of these growing and increasingly public disagreements (to say nothing of their potential security implications) even though some of its people are more frequently expressing frustration with such a policy or it can concede to the emerging shift in public opinion by letting relations gradually deteriorate despite this potentially creating grand strategic openings for the US’ divide-and-rule machinations. By testing its S-400s when it did and provoking the US’ wrath, however, Turkey created an opening for Russia to “save face” by remaining committed to their historically unprecedented positive relations while pointing out to its people all that Ankara is risking to maintain them.
For all that some critics might claim about how Turkey’s competing interests with Russia in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh supposedly “proves” that it’s the Eurasian Great Power’s “eternal rival”, Ankara’s strategically timed testing of its S-400s reminds Moscow of all that the Mideast country is risking to maintain their historically unprecedented (albeit naturally “imperfect”) positive relations. Bilateral ties are at a crucial junction whereby they’ll either overcome the slew of challenges facing them to emerge even stronger as a result or deteriorate to the point where this process might dangerously become uncontrollable and create an unexpected opening for the US to divide and rule both of them. It’s of course Russian decision makers’ sovereign right to choose how to respond to the signal being sent to them by their Turkish counterparts, but it’s unmistakable that such a well-intended signal was recently sent at great risk to Ankara’s relations with America. That alone should make observers question critics’ claims about Turkey supposedly being Russia’s “enemy”.