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Paul Iddon

US pressures Turkey and Egypt over Russian arms purchases

Russian President Putin (R) greets Turkish President Erdogan (L) at the Grand Kremlin Palace [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 May, 2019

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In-depth: Turkey is seeking to buy advanced S-400 air defence systems from Russia amid strong US opposition and threats of sanctions, reports Paul Iddon.
The United States has openly warned that it will place sanctions on both Turkey and Egypt, two major Middle East allies and arms clients, if these two countries push ahead with their purchases of sophisticated Russian-made military equipment.

The US and Turkey have been locked in an increasingly serious rift that could compromise the decades-old partnership the two have had in the NATO alliance. Turkey is seeking to buy advanced S-400 air defence systems from Russia amidst strong US opposition.  

Washington has warned Ankara on several occasions that it will cancel the delivery of 100 F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation stealth jets Ankara ordered and remove it from the aircraft's production programme if it goes ahead with this purchase. 

The US says that Turkey cannot field both F-35s and S-400s, insisting that this could result in sensitive information about the advanced fighter being leaked to Russia. The US has also pointed to the incompatibility of the S-400 with NATO's other Western-built air defence systems, suggesting that it's irresponsible of Turkey as a NATO member to purchase it.

Turkey declined a last-minute alternative US offer to sell it Patriot air defence missiles last February in return for it cancelling the S-400 deal. Washington even offered to fast track the delivery of the systems for an additional fee.

There are not yet any solid indications that Moscow will provide Ankara anything more than Turkey's NATO allies would regarding joint production and technology transfer of the air defence system. This indicates that Ankara's decision to push ahead with the deal, despite the consequences, is motivated more by politics, or even pride than practical considerations.

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Russia, meanwhile, has sought to reassure Turkey over the prospect of being pushed out of the F-35 programme by suggesting that it could instead sell it Su-57 fifth-generation aircraft.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has already said that Turkey could buy either Su-57s or other modern Russian Sukhoi fighter jets if the US denies it F-35s.

However, Russia has only built about two dozen Su-57s to date. In the foreseeable future, it plans to manufacture just another 13. As a result, Moscow is unlikely capable of providing Ankara anything remotely comparable to 100 F-35s and a lucrative role manufacturing F-35 parts anytime soon.

"We cannot afford to leave the F-35 not substituted," conceded one unnamed senior Turkish military officer cited by Defence News.

On May 18, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey will jointly produce the upcoming S-500 air defence missiles with Russia. However, it's presently unclear if Ankara has actually finalised an agreement with Moscow to do this.

"To date, Turkey doesn't have a good track record of eliciting Russian concessions on intellectual property, but who knows what the future holds for the Turkish-Russian relationship," Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The New Arab.

Washington has warned Ankara on several occasions that it will cancel the delivery of 100 F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation stealth jets Ankara ordered and remove it from the aircraft's production programme if it goes ahead with this purchase

Ankara has tried to downplay the risk of being pushed out of the F-35 programme by insisting that this would prove far too costly for the US and all the other countries involved in it. However, American sources familiar with the programme have refuted this claim.

"Turkey is not too big to fail," one of the sources told Reuters.

"The Su-57 is not an F-35, but is also world's more advanced than Turkey's highly modified, late generation F-4 Phantoms," Joseph Trevithick, a military analyst at The War Zone, told The New Arab.

"The industrial offsets and offers for local cooperation or technology transfer that the Russians might be prepared to make could help ease domestic concerns about any loss in capability, too," he added.

"If the United States does eject Turkey from the F-35 programme, as a whole, Ankara will certainly need to do something just to save face."

More generally, the US has sought to prevent its various arms clients from buying Russian hardware. It is presently trying to dissuade India from purchasing S-400s by offering to sell it New Delhi the American equivalent, the Terminal High Altitude Area defence (THAAD), instead.

Then there is the recent case of Egypt's reported $2 billion contract with Russia for the delivery of about two dozen sophisticated Sukhoi-35 multi-role fighter-bombers.

Washington has already warned Cairo that if it goes ahead with this deal it could become subject to the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation, signed by US President Donald Trump in August 2017, which seeks, among other things, to reprimand any country that purchases Russian weaponry.

"We've made it clear that, if those systems were to be purchased, statute CAATSA would require sanctions on the regime," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on April 9.

"We have received assurances from [the Egyptians] that they understand that [sanctions will be imposed] and I am very hopeful that they will decide not to move forward with this acquisition."

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Until the Su-35 deal came along Washington did not make any serious objections, at least publicly, to Egypt's prior multi-billion dollar purchases of 46 advanced Russian MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum-E jet fighters and S-300VM air defence missile systems, which were made since incumbent Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power in 2014.   

Since the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the US has provided Egypt with billions of dollars to purchase vast quantities of American arms. This has seen the Egyptian armed forces fielding a large arsenal of everything from F-16 jet fighter-bombers to Apache helicopter gunships to M1 Abrams tanks.

However, Cairo hasn't always been allowed to purchase the weapon systems it wanted from Washington. Egyptian F-16s, for example, are more basic than the kind the US has provided Israel and Turkey and their missiles have significantly shorter ranges.

Egypt has not been able to convince the US to sell it more high-performance F-15 Eagle jets, which Washington has sold to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, nor even long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles for its F-16s – which Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all possess.

Cairo has in recent years also bought a fleet of 24 multi-role Dassault Rafale jets, warplanes that are significantly more advanced than its F-16s, as part of a multi-billion euro arms package from France.

The Su-35 is also a very sophisticated warplane and more comparable with modern F-15 variants than Egypt's F-16s. Even a small fleet of Su-35s armed with R-77 air-to-air missiles, the Russian equivalent of the AMRAAM, could have the potential to substantially improve Egypt's ability to target any airborne adversary.

It's unclear if Cairo will ultimately push ahead with the Su-35 deal if Washington is serious about imposing sanctions. At present, the situation is certainly nowhere near the stage of the Turkish S-400 debacle.

Nevertheless, it is yet another indication that the US is finding itself becoming increasingly challenged by growing and more competitive Russian arms sales in the Middle East.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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