There’s hardly anything more boring than the latest news on Russia’s S-300 air defense system and whether it will ever be delivered to Iran. But buried in the flurry of pro forma reports on the most recent update – which indicate that the system will not be delivered for the time being, due to the UN sanctions vote – is some news that is really news. Russia has decided to participate in Turkey’s international tender for a new air defense system, in which the principal competition is the U.S. Patriot. Moscow will reportedly offer the most advanced version of the S-300; the new-generation S-400, which went into production in April 2010, may be on the table as well.
There has been vigorous speculation about this prospect in the defense industry press since mid-2008. But while both sides have shown interest for some time, official notice of Russian participation has not come until now. Turkey’s membership in NATO makes this development a “big effing deal.” Greece bought an older S-300 system in the 1990s, but that sale was concluded in a different context: at the height of the Balkans conflict, Greece harbored national defense concerns (e.g., in disputed Cyprus) with which the larger NATO alliance had no official sympathy. The S-300 was never intended to be part of a NATO defense network. Greece has Patriot batteries, both national and under NATO command, for that purpose.
Turkey today is soliciting bids for its baseline national air defense system. The Turkish system would be integrated with the rest of NATO in the alliance’s theater missile-defense concept – and because of its geographic location, would be integral to the defense of Europe against ballistic missiles launched from Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
For Russia, making this move inherently amounts to challenging the status quo within NATO. A host of operational consequences would arise with integrating a Russian air defense system into NATO’s network. Everything from equipment design to NATO codebooks, rules of engagement, and the purpose and scope of standing operational plans would come into play.
The conceptual door was opened for this Russian bid with the NATO-Russia talks on missile-defense cooperation last month. But NATO’s passivity this spring regarding France’s agreement with Russia to jointly build amphibious assault ships has probably been at least as important as the alliance’s official military rapprochement. The Russians’ confidence can only have been bolstered by their success earlier this month in getting Germany to join them in a call for a permanent EU-Russia “security committee”: quite obviously a body that would overlap NATO’s charter.
My estimate is that Moscow would not participate in the air defense competition, in the full glare of international scrutiny, if its leaders expected an embarrassing rebuff. The Turkish decision on which air defense system to buy will be a watershed event in NATO’s history as well as Turkey’s. If Turkey picks a Russian system, the NATO alliance will lose its sole discretion over when and how its military arrangements are to evolve. Turkey and Russia know what is riding on this decision; Erdogan will no doubt leverage it for the best package of concessions he can get from both Russia and NATO. Given his emerging Islamist, anti-Israel agenda, whichever choice his government makes will mean an unplanned transformation for NATO.