The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Turkey and the S-300

Recent reports suggest that Russia is lining up a sale of the highly capable S-300 air-defence system to Turkey. While it's not surprising that Russia is seeking alternative customers for the S-300 (given that a lucrative deal to supply the system to Iran has now been canceled), the involvement of Turkey as recipient is potentially significant.

An article in UPI (which takes quite a negative tone) points out what it considers to be some of the possible implications of this speculative deal:

1) It would mark an eastward shift in Ankara's geopolitical orientation;

2) Turkey may end up supplying the S-300 to Iran;

3) Russia is using arms sales to "bolster" its influence in the Middle East.

Although the deal would be the latest of several indications that Turkey is reorientating itself towards the East, the assertion that it may supply the system to Iran seems like pure fantasy. If it did, then Ankara would not only undermine its position within NATO, but it would also aggravate Russia. However, point 3 is valid -- Turkey usually buys its weapons systems from the West and purchasing the S-300 may lead to more extensive arms procurements from Russia.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be a contradiction in the article: it claims that Anatoly Isaikin, director of Rosoboronexport, suggested that "Russia was prepared to participate in a Turkish tender for missile systems along with Western arms manufacturers." If this is true, and it's done in partnership with Western firms, then it changes the nature of the deal entirely. Rather than it being yet another indication of an increasingly precarious U.S.-Tukey relationship, it becomes a good example of U.S./NATO-Russian cooperation. Furthermore, if NATO members/allies purchase the S-300 system then it may help relieve pressure coming from Russian arms manufacturers to supply air-defence systems and other armaments to Iran.

It's clear that the United States and the West can't have the best of both worlds, it cannot stop Russia from supplying the S-300 to Iran while at the same time blocking sales to alternative (friendly) buyers. Given Russia's substantial arms industry there is an argument to be made, from a security standpoint, for allowing it to sell arms to allies. Moreover, if firms from Russia and the West actually partner with each other then it may help to maintain some semblance of control over Russian arms exports.

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