An S-400 missile defense system in use by Russian armed forces. (photo: mil.ru)
Senior Turkish officials say that Russia is now the leading contender in its seemingly never-ending competition to pick a multi-billion-dollar air defense system. The news will surely come as an annoyance to Turkey's NATO partners, which may be precisely the point, some analysts say.
To review: in 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for its multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, Ankara eventually abandoned the procurement and in 2015 announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
The crux of the NATO objection to the Chinese pick was that it would expose sensitive alliance data to Beijing. Turkey countered that only China was willing to give Turkey the production information with which it would eventually be able to manufacture the system on its own -- a key demand in Ankara's tender -- and at a much lower cost than western offers, to boot. Analysts generally saw Turkey's gambit as a means of bargaining with its American and European partners so that the latter might sweeten their deals.
Now that story seems set to repeat all over again, this time with Russia instead of China.
"It seems as though Russia is the most suitable candidate for fulfilling the country's need at the moment,'' Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on February 22.
The issue will likely be discussed, if not finally decided, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Russia next month.
"The talks are continuing on the S-400," Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin,
Turkey’s campaign against schools reportedly linked to Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen got a mega-boost late last week when the Georgian government opted to suspend the license of Batumi’s Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School, a private institution earlier denounced by a Turkish diplomat for supposedly “serving terrorist groups” loyal to Gülen.
Georgia’s decision to cancel the school’s operating license came just days after 270 suspects went on trial in Turkey for alleged involvement in a failed coup attempt last July that Ankara blames on the US-based Gülen, now being tried in absentia. Washington does not recognize the 75-year-old Islamic teacher as a terrorist.
Despite its strategic ties with Turkey, Georgia, unlike other Eurasian countries, previously had made no move to close institutions considered part of Gülen’s international network of schools.
The grounds for its decision to do so now are less than crystal clear. The official decision, apparently taken on February 3, may not be published until next week.
The spokesperson for the National Center for Educational Quality Enhancement, the body overseeing school licenses, said only that a monitoring group had found “serious violations” of regulations, including for enrollment procedures, Interpressnews reported.
The visit to Uzbekistan last week by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been comprehensively covered by local media in a show of the importance it has been accorded.
Erdogan flew into Samarkand on November 17 and immediately laid flowers at the grave of President Islam Karimov, who was buried in the city in early September.
The visit to the grave was a purely pro forma exercise, however, and the main focus was on the meeting with acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is to be formally confirmed in his post at the December 4 election.
Erdogan had a huge contingent of top officials in tow, demonstrating the value that Ankara has placed on the visit. The delegation included deputy prime ministers Veysi Kaynak and Tuğrul Türkeş, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak, Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, the Chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, and the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan
“President … Erdogan stated that Uzbekistan and Turkey should upgrade their bilateral relations to a new level. He recalled that the head of the Foreign Ministry, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, [recently] visited Uzbekistan and during the visit the sides agreed on developing a roadmap on developing bilateral relations. He declared his hopes that Uzbekistan and Turkey would soon complete work on this document,” news website Uzdaily.uz reported.
Turkey has reportedly invited Russia to bid on an air defense system that has become a sort of geopolitical bellwether, suggesting that Ankara may be using its rapprochement with Moscow to send a message to its Western partners.
On October 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Turkey since the two countries fell out over Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border last year. And after Putin met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia was "invited" to take part in the air defense tender, Defense News reported, citing Turkish diplomatic and procurement sources.
This would appear to revive the epic saga of Ankara's multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program. In 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for the program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, eventually abandoned the procurement and last year announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
Since then, though, Ankara has been quietly negotiating with the original American and European bidders, Defense News reported. And now Russia makes it a three-way competition.
Russia was one of the bidders in the original competition, with an export version of the S-300VM, but it was the least attractive of the four options: it shared the high price of the Western systems (reportedly double the price the Chinese offered) with the security risk of the Chinese. The crux of NATO's objection to the Chinese system was that it couldn't be securely intregrated with NATO's system; a Russian system would surely be just as dangerous from that perspective.
Russia's top military officer has said that the country's Black Sea fleet is now stronger than Turkey's navy, and emphasized that Russia is now capable of easily striking the Bosphorus straits, statements that highlight the tenuous nature of the rapprochement between the two states.
"Several years ago the capability of the fleet was sharply contrasted, in particular, with the Turkish navy, when it was said that Turkey is virtually the master of the Black Sea. Now everything is different," said General Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, at the conclusion of military exercises conducted in southern Russia earlier this month.
Gerasimov highlighted several of the fleet's new acquisitions, including submarines capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, new aircraft, and the Bastion coastal defense missiles that Russia deployed to Crimea shortly after annexing the territory.
"For [destroying a potential enemy] the Black Sea Fleet today has everything: reconnaissance assets, which locate targets at a distance of 500 kilometers, strike assets. One Bastion complex has a range of 350 kilometers, including to the Bosphorus," he said.
Germany's government is planning to concede to Turkish demands on the country's recognition of the Armenian genocide in exchange for the German military's continued access to a Turkish airbase, a German magazine has reported.
The compromise is aimed at resolving a crisis that began in June when the German Bundestag adopted a resolution recognizing the mass killings ot Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador and blocked the visits of German members of parliament to German troops serving at the Incirlik air base.
Germany has deployed about 250 German troops, six surveillance jets and a refueling tanker to Incirlik as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS in Syria. Germany threatened to pull out of that operation if its parliamentarians weren't allowed to visit. "The German army answers to parliament," Social Democrat leader and Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the regional newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung in July. "And if parliament cannot visit its army, then the army cannot stay there. This is absolutely clear," Gabriel said.
Turkey has laid out two conditions for German MP visits to Incirlik: stronger statements of support for the Turkish government in wake of the coup attempt in July, and stepping back from the Armenian genocide recognition.
The wave of arrests of suspected coup plotters and sympathisers in Turkey has spread to engulf the emigre Central Asian community, mainly people from Uzbekistan.
From early July to the current day, around 140 Central Asian citizens have been detained, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has reported.
“On July 29, following the coup attempt, Turkish security services detained 29 citizens of Uzbekistan in Istanbul, after which another 100 Uzbek migrants were detained,” Ozodlik reported over the weekend.
The BBC Uzbek service, meanwhile, cited rights groups in Turkey as presenting other figures.
“In deportation centers in Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood, they are holding 45 Uzbek families, 150 Uzbekistani citizens,” the broadcaster reported.
For all this pressure against these emigre communities, there are no confirmed reports of charges being filed.
But the BBC quotes Adam Chevlik, head of the Istanbul-based Uzbek Unity group, as saying that police is investigating the alleged involvement of eight citizens of Uzbekistan in the coup attempt. The suspects’ homes have been searched, Chevlik told the BBC.
Chevlik said that 142 citizens of Uzbekistan have been arrested and 11 released from custody. Prosecutors have ordered 88 Uzbeks to be held in custody, he said.
Concern is also mounting at the fate of those that could be forced out of the country.
Ozodlik quoted the Turkish-based People’s Movement of Uzbekistan opposition group as saying that 40 people have been ordered to leave Turkey within the month.
A high-level meeting reportedly set to take place later this year in Turkmenistan could put talk of building a natural gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea back on the agenda.
The Associated Press on July 23 cited Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Mustafa Kapucu, as saying that the presidents of his country, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will meet to discuss the issue. The talks pick up from the EU-brokered Ashgabat Declaration of May 2015, which was signed by the energy ministries of the three countries and set down objectives like creating a legal framework for gas sales by Turkmenistan to Europe and “[developing] constructive dialogue” on the required infrastructure.
The fact that heads of state are set to sit around the table presumably suggests all the governments involved envision a transition from preliminary paper-shuffling to some concrete breakthrough, although experience teaches that this may not be the case.
The resurgence of interest in trans-Caspian would come at a timely juncture for Turkmenistan, which is now reduced to selling almost all of its gas to China. A small if growing amount if being sent to neighboring Iran.
Diversification of export routes has long been an article of dogma for Turkmenistan, and yet it has exasperatingly seen only a reduction of its international markets in recent years. Its erstwhile main customer Russia bought 45 billion cubic meters of gas in 2008, but that has through a series of commercial and diplomatic vicissitudes dwindled to nothing.
Since gas is so important to Turkmenistan, many have surmised that the country’s economy is performing far worse than the government officially allows for.
The Azerbaijani government was forced to deny Turkish press reports that Turkey was establishing a military base in the country.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an agreement "confirming the protocols on the transfer of buildings and structures in the military cantonment Gyzyl Shryag and the terminal at the military airfield in Zainalabdin Tagiyev to the use of the armed forces of the Turkish republic," Azerbaijani media reported on Thursday.
From that legalese, some Turkish media oversimplified the news. "Turkey to establish military base in Azerbaijan," the state Anadolu Agency wrote in its headline. "Azerbaijan signs protocol allowing Turkey to establish military base," the state-run Daily Sabah wrote.
Azerbaijan's constitution, however, forbids the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, and government officials quickly clarified. "Press reports about the creation of a military base of any country do not have any basis and do not correspond to reality," Deputy Defense Minister Ramiz Tahirov told the AzerTaj news agency.
What exactly constitutes a "base" isn't always clear, but this is a largely bureaucratic move, explained Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, director of the Caspian Defense Studies Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. Around 60-70 Turkish soldiers are stationed in Azerbaijan, largely as trainers for various branches of the Azerbaijani security services, Sumerinli said.
As Turkey focused its coup-cleanup operations on its education system, its close ally Azerbaijan on July 20 announced the closure of Caucasus University, the country's first private university, founded by supporters of the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, now charged by Ankara with plotting to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The decision brought back memories of 2014 when, as Turkey started to raise the alarm about Gülen, a former government pal, Azerbaijani authorities closed 13 education centers and 11 high schools associated with the cleric’s movement. They were transferred to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR).
One Turkish company Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education), believed linked to Gülen, however, had shared control of Caucasus University with SOCAR and another firm.
No more. SOCAR Vice-President for Human Resources Khalig Mammadov posted on his Facebook page that control over Caucasus University has been given to the state-run Baku Higher Oil School .
“Students . . . will continue their education as before,” Mammadov wrote. “The teaching staff of the university will also continue their work.”
The education ministry told APA that after receiving the relevant documents, it will create a working group to allow Caucasus University students to continue their education elsewhere.