October 17, 2019

Don’t Let Turkey Defect to Russia

“As Europe moved toward war in the summer of 1914, two battleships were being built for the Ottoman Empire in British shipyards. Worried about signs of an Ottoman-German alliance, Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, seized the ships. Germany then sent two ships of its own as replacements. By October, the Ottomans were at war with the Allies.

Today’s crisis with Turkey over Russian weapons could be as consequential. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to import the S-400 antiaircraft system, designed to shoot down the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s airplanes, is a fundamental challenge to the West. Mr. Erdogan’s move to drill for natural gas in Cyprus’s waters has also driven a wedge between Turkey and its erstwhile allies, with the European Union now looking to cut funding to Turkey.

Ankara is likely to lose access to the coveted American-made F-35 aircraft which, like the British ships in 1914, have been paid for but not delivered. The Trump administration is also required by law to impose economic sanctions on Turkey in response to its Russian weapons purchase, though it can choose from options ranging in severity. The Turkish economy is already shrinking, with inflation at nearly 16% and unemployment at 14%. Even mild sanctions could spook investors and send the lira and stock market into free fall.

Why would Mr. Erdogan take such a risk? From Turkey’s point of view, the country isn’t so much leaving the West as reacting to Western abandonment. The U.S., Turks note, hasn’t followed up with commitments to sell Turkey the Patriot antiaircraft system, and has armed and supported Syrian Kurdish groups Ankara regards as hostile and terrorist. Moreover, the EU has made plain that Turkish membership is an impossible dream, and as Mr. Erdogan leads Turkey in a more Islamist direction, even the pretense of a serious accession negotiation becomes increasingly difficult to keep up.”

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