Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds

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UNLESS Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan scraps his order for Russian S-400 ground-to-air missiles, next month Washington will suspend his country’s participation in the Lockheed F-35 stealth fighter program.

The Russian missiles, which are designed to shoot down warplanes, including the F-35, were due to be delivered this month. But in May Ankara’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that there might be a delay. Even though Akar went on to insist the deployment of the Russian equipment would be going ahead in due time, this caused some analysts to speculate that Erdogan was going cold on his Moscow deal. Their reasoning was that the Turkish president, aware of his rising tide of economic troubles, had suddenly realized that a dislocation in economic relations with the United States, with potential trade as well as military sanctions imposed Washington, and was looking for a way to row back while saving face.

It was collapsing living standards that undermined his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) support in local elections at the end of March when he lost both the capital Ankara and the country’s commercial hub, Istanbul. Never mind that the election commission has been lent on to order a rerun the Istanbul election to see if the voters can get it right this time. The underlying prospects for the Turkish economy are already bleak. The government has borrowed heavily for grandiose infrastructure projects and corporate Turkey is drowning in foreign debt, which a collapsing lira is making its almost impossible to repay.

Erdogan’s unexpected 2016 rapprochement with Russian president Vladimir Putin followed the Turkish air force’s downing of two Russian jets that had been operating in Syria. For Moscow, cutting out one of NATO’s key member states has been a diplomatic triumph, consolidated by the order for its S-400 missile system. At the time, Erdogan’s big power politics play must have seemed to him a triumph for his imperial style. But now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Economically, Russia has nothing to offer Turkey in comparison with the Washington-led West. Oil and gas supplies do not make up for the financial investment that Turkey’s once undoubtedly dynamic economy requires.

Erdogan has overplayed his hand. The Turkish aviation industry has been working with Lockheed on the F-16 program for 25 years. If Trump trashes its participation in the Stealth fighter deal, which includes Turkish production of parts of the fuselage and some avionics and cuts further deliveries of the fighter — only two training versions have been delivered — it will be a potent challenge to Erdogan’s Janus-faced foreign policy. Even though it might be argued it is already too late to keep the F-35’s secrets from Russian military scientists, Washington is not about to let such an obvious key security breach to continue. Erdogan’s last minute offer to buy US Patriot missiles is hardly going to make a difference.

Put bluntly, Erdogan has overplayed his hand. His oblique support for terrorism via his championing of the Muslim Brotherhood has wrecked his hopes of exerting influence in the Middle East. His tweaking of Donald Trump’s nose over the Russian missile contract is likely to prove an even more serious mistake. He cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.


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