The Biggest Loser from the US’s Missile Defense Spat with Turkey will be the European Union

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Alexander Nemenov

The hot war of words between Ankara and Washington over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system shows no signs of cooling. This month, Washington made its most serious threat yet, as Vice-President Mike Pence warned that Turkey “must choose” between the weapons system and its membership of the Nato alliance.

On the other side of the Atlantic, European leaders and the European Union have been surprisingly quiet over the S-400 issue.But this spat has serious implications for Europe and EU countries. It risks fracturing an alliance that primarily keeps Europe safe and it is pushing a pivotal ally out of Nato and toward Russia.For those reasons, despite legitimate distaste in European capitals toward both Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is vital the EU makes it a priority to mediate in resolving this dispute.

The S-400 row has a military component, but it is primarily political. There is a concern that the system’s Russian radars would be able to “read” the US-made F-35 fighter jets as they crossed in and out of Turkish airspace, compromising the most sophisticated fighter jet in Nato’s arsenal.

But the underlying issue is mainly political, a question of trust. Since the purchase was announced in 2017, there have been attempts to get Ankara to change its mind but recently the language has become more threatening: the Pentagon said Turkey would face “grave consequences,” including – but not limited to – being removed from the F-35 program (which would have serious consequences for Europe’s security), and even Congressional sanctions for trading with Russia’s defense industry. In a matter of weeks, as the July delivery date for the system draws near, the spat has escalated. Indeed, it is remarkable how swiftly a specific question of military procurement has morphed into a wider question about Turkey’s place in an alliance it has been part of almost since Nato’s founding.

Thus far, European capitals and the EU have remained quiet. Even Nato itself has refrained from joining in the row: on his trip to Washington at the start of April to mark 70 years since Nato’s founding, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg did not mention the issue, apart from an elliptical reference to “disagreements” within the alliance. It has been left to the United States to take a particularly hard line in support of Nato – a peculiar kind of irony, given Trump’s contemptuous past comments about the alliance.

Part of the reason for Europe’s hesitancy may be down to an unwillingness to back Trump so publicly.The way the Trump administration has handled Ankara reflects its undiplomatic approach to other European countries: issuing demands and expecting them to be met is now the White House way even with close allies.

Whether it was suggesting at his first Nato summit that European countries owe the US “massive amounts of money,” or attacking Germany for being “captive to Russia” over its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, this White House has a track record of seeking to push allies around (quite literally, in the case of Montenegro’s prime minister).

But as the row escalates and Turkey is pushed either to Nato’s  margins or toward the exit door, the biggest loser will be the European Union. Without an EU army, Nato is Europe’s primary defense provider. And Turkey, notwithstanding its backsliding on democracy, is crucial for the security of the continent.A Turkey outside Nato ought to be unthinkable for Europe. It would mean giving up the largest army this side of the Atlantic and ceding the heavily contested Black Sea almost entirely to Russia. It would compromise Nato’s security by losing access to Turkey’s military bases and also to Nato’s most easterly forward operating base in the Turkish city of Konya.It would mean losing Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, and more particularly in the Balkan states, an area where Russia is actively seeking to undermine the EU.

Moreover, it would be a surprising failure of politics. Turkey may be tilting towards Russia on this particular issue and the country is cooperating with Russia in Syria, but the idea that the Turks are seriously considering turning away from Europe towards Russia is overblown. Turkey’s foreign minister said as much only recently, noting that the country “made our choice a long time ago” to ally with Nato and the EU. Expelling Turkey from Nato would turn the unlikely into a reality.Even cancelling Turkey’s part in the F-35 fighter jet program would carry consequences, since Ankara would then seek to purchase Russia’s rival stealth fighter the Su-57.

Certainly, the spat has been made worse by the attitudes of the two presidents. Trump has shown little compunction in both verbally threatening and issuing sanctions against a Nato ally. Erdogan had an opportunity to cool the row last year when the US offered to sell Patriot missiles. He rejected it.

But the issue is bigger than the personalities. For their own sake, EU leaders should hold their noses and mediate with Nato’s unruly members.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.