Putin weakens NATO


GOOD friendships can sometimes actually begin with a fight. In December 2015 Turkish jets shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter which Ankara said had strayed from Syria into Turkish airspace. A furious Moscow protested and threatened a permanent breach in diplomatic relations. Yet just six month later Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow and emerged alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin for a photo call that was all smiles and handshakes.

The Kremlin’s anger at the downing of one of its warplanes was clearly outweighed by the opportunity to finesse the incident to its distinct diplomatic advantage. Erdogan did apologize but there was no attempt by Putin to make the Turkish leader eat crow. Rather, it is now clear that Erdogan’s Moscow visit opened a very new chapter in Russo-Turkish relations.

Turkey is a member of NATO. It still maintains a large conscript army and sits in a strategically important position to the south of Russia. Throughout the Cold War, before the collapse of the Soviet Union when its Georgian and Armenian frontiers bordered Turkey, Ankara played a solid supportive role in NATO hosting US airbases and intelligence-gathering facilities.

Now that relationship is in trouble because Erdogan has just signed a $2.5 billion deal with Moscow to buy Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. Thus a key NATO member is equipping itself with a missile system that is not compatible with the organization’s armory.

For the Kremlin to agree to such a deal brings two interesting considerations. The first is that the Russian military must be relatively comfortable with the idea that an element of its own anti-aircraft defenses is being handed over to a country whose military alliances make it a potential enemy. The technology within the S-400 could be revealed to Turkey’s NATO allies. The second interesting point is that since Russia knows exactly how the S-400 missiles work, it also knows how to interdict them and stop them from striking its own aircraft and drones. On that basis, at whose air assets could Turkey’s new missile system possibly be aimed?

The triumph for Putin is that he has loosened, if not yet completely dislodged, one of the blocks in what the Kremlin sees as NATO’s military encirclement of Russia. It refuses to accept that NATO is the defensive alliance that it protests itself to be. The attempt to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO has caused Putin to launch disruptive military interventions. The accession of most of the former members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact into NATO caused Russian commanders to grind their teeth.

This expansion of the US-led military alliance has thus been seen as deeply alarming. Russians simply do not believe that NATO is purely defensive. European member countries may have run down their militaries and most do not commit the NATO-required minimum of two percent of GDP to their armed forces, but from a strategic point of view, NATO countries near its borders seem to the Russian leadership, to be launching platforms for a US assault on their country.

And it is wrong to say Moscow is being paranoid. In the first and second World Wars, Russia lost some 30 million dead, almost 27 million of them after the German Nazi attack in 1941. No other country suffered such traumatic losses.