Home / Articles / The Crete Mirage: Why Rapprochement with Turkey May be a Long Way Off
After years of disagreement about Turkey’s purchase of a Russian-made S-400 air and missile system, Ankara has suggested that it could adopt the so-called “Crete Model,” which was used to solve a trilateral dispute between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey in the 1990s after Nicosia purchased a Russian S-300 missile system. The S-300 was slated for deployment in Cyprus, but Turkish threats to bomb the system resulted in a flurry of diplomatic activity that led to the system’s move to Crete, eventual transfer to Greek custody, and selected use by allied Air Forces to train against. Ankara’s proposal would presumably not lead to the deployment of the S-400 outside of its national borders, but it would mimic the selective use of certain S-400 radars and the ability to train against the system for allied Air Forces.
For the United States, the proposal has little technical value, given its familiarity with the S-400. However, if Ankara is willing to expand upon this offer and countenance an inspection mechanism to verify the system’s non-use, then a pathway to improve relations could emerge. This pathway, however, may not lead to a total reset in ties, but could unlock U.S. Foreign Military Sales to Turkey, which have been blocked since October 2019, and could make room for additional agreements to allow for Turkey to purchase the F-35—the only stealth fighter built for export.
This outcome is not ideal for Ankara. Its return to the F-35 consortium may never happen, but this proposal is at least a starting point for bilateral dialogue and signals that Ankara is serious about trying to solve this one issue. However, with trust between the two sides so badly frayed, a proposal that doesn’t include some onsite mechanism to verify non-deployment will likely preclude the United States from acquiescing to an agreement that allows for the S-400 to remain intact in Turkey. To date, Turkey has not publicly offered a proposal, but the mention of Crete suggests that Ankara is willing to entertain keeping the system in storage, with an agreement to use the system selectively.
Ankara’s offer comes amid broader Turkish concerns about closer American and European collaboration on regional policy and both entities adopting sanctions to pushback against Turkish actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and in response to the S-400 purchase. The Turkish proposal is not entirely out of step with other Turkish “trial balloons” on the S-400’s future operation, but the timing signals that Turkey is eager to deflect growing pressure from the West and to escape further sanctions from Washington or Brussels.
Turkey’s Tortured History with Missile Defense
The Turkish government has expressed an interest in long-range air and missile defense for decades. However, the country’s history of economic boom-and-bust has hindered negotiations with foreign suppliers, and Ankara’s insistence on favorable offsets often stymie agreement on the sale of a variety of different systems. Over the past three decades, the Turkish government has expressed interest in the American Patriot, the Israeli Arrow, the Chinese HQ-9, and, most recently, the Russian S-400. The Turkish government’s defense acquisition policy is premised on securing foreign technology transfer and offsets to improve Turkish know-how and to secure investment for production of components in the country. For decades, Ankara emphasized the importance of offsets during negotiations, choosing to forego the rapid acquisition of a system in favor of protracted discussions with private industry and governments about the level of technical collaboration that Turkey would require to finalize any purchasing agreement.
Ankara’s demands for offsets are not a global outlier, but discussions with the United States often led to protracted negotiations that slow the purchase of major weapons systems. The Turkish aerospace establishment was founded by an American offset during F-16 program discussions, and it was from the core built around this program that spawned much of Turkey’s modern defense industry. The United States has encouraged Turkish interest in air and missile defense, but during iterative discussions on the sale of Patriot, Ankara’s technology demands often ran afoul of U.S. export restrictions. Turkey’s approach to defense acquisition changed dramatically in 2016 following a failed coup in July and the return to discussions with Moscow for air and missile defense.
The Justice and Development Party began its missile defense acquisition effort in 2007. During its process (dubbed T-LORAMIDS), Ankara received a proposal for a Russian-made S-300 missile system. However, Ankara ruled out the Russian proposal, indicating the price tag was too high and Russian proposals on technology sharing were inadequate. Ankara weighed similar proposals from the United States and Europe, but ultimately selected China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), a firm under U.S. sanctions for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, as the winner in 2013. The Turkish decision stunned Western observers, but Ankara argued that China offered the lowest price and the greatest amount of technology transfer. In response, both Washington and Brussels argued that the system was incompatible with Ankara’s political requirements to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which stipulate that member states would seek to purchase interoperable systems. To be clear, each country operates individual air and missile defense systems, with different missiles and radars tasked with defending against different classes of threat—and doing so independently of one another. Thus, no system is truly interoperable, but the acquisition of foreign radar—and the need to service foreign defense acquisitions—could increase an adversaries’ understanding of Western and NATO militaries.
The HQ-9 decision put at risk broader Turkish-American defense cooperation largely because any work Ankara would undertake with a sanctioned entity would risk U.S. firms violating American sanctions law. Thus, it made prudent sense to scale back work in Turkey, lest large American firms risk more lucrative contracts with the Department of Defense. This pressure succeeded, and Ankara ultimately decided to end talks with China in 2015 and subsequently began negotiations with the United States and Europe for the Patriot system and the SAMP/T.
A Political Agreement
The S-400 proposal emerged during summer 2016, following a political rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow after tensions stemming from Ankara’s shootdown of a Russian Su-24 bomber in November 2015 eventually subsided. The rapprochement began with a Turkish change in its Syria policy, following Ankara’s decision to frustrate the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led force that Ankara views as under the control of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. In June 2016, the Turkish government apologized to the Russian Federation for the Su-24 incident and, in the days following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, framed Russia’s response to the putsch as more supportive than Turkey’s traditional Western allies. From the outset of the S-400 talks, the initiative had strong backing from Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. The top-down pressure hastened negotiations, with Russia agreeing to financing and Ankara foregoing its traditional emphasis on technology transfer to finalize a deal. The Russians went as far as to hasten delivery by assigning two S-400 regiments in production for its own armed forces. Moscow charged Turkey more for the system than it did China and India, perhaps building in financial insurance if Ankara succumbed to expected Western pressure and cancelled the agreement. However, Russia paired this higher price with a financing offer that allowed for Turkey to take ownership of the system with little cash exchanged up front.
During negotiations, the United States repeatedly warned Ankara that the agreement would result in Turkey’s expulsion from the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter consortium and lead to sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The United States believes that the S-400’s radar can be used to collect intelligence about U.S. stealth aircraft, undermining efforts to keep aspects of the F-35 secret from adversaries. CAATSA includes secondary sanctions that penalize countries that undertake a significant transaction with Russian industries linked to the Ministry of Interior and/or the Ministry of Defense. The S-400 is produced by a MoD-linked entity, entrapping Turkey in mandatory sanctions once it purchases the system. Ankara managed to avoid CAATSA sanctions during much of the Trump term, owing to the former administration’s pliant approach to Turkish actions. It was only in November 2020, just weeks after Ankara tested the S-400, that Washington finally acted. Then-President Trump had sought to talk Ankara out of its purchase, first through his administration’s hard work to offer an alternative to S-400, consisting of the rapid delivery of Patriot and/or the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS). Ankara never ruled out a separate arrangement with the United States, but it lied throughout the ordeal by suggesting that the S-400 was selected because Washington refused to sell Turkey the system on favorable terms. The S-400 purchase stemmed from Ankara’s effort to decouple from the United States, albeit while remaining a NATO member.
The Trump administration eventually floated a “keep it boxed” option, which would obviate the need to sanction Turkey, so long as Ankara didn’t use the S-400 and kept it in storage. Ankara violated this gentleman’s arrangement days before the November election—just as Congress was tightening language in the annual defense bill to mandate the rapid imposition of sanctions on Turkey. The National Defense Authorization Act further outlined the conditions that Turkey would have to meet to lift CAATSA sanctions. To do so, Ankara would have to halt negotiations with Russia for a second S-400 regiment, which was part of the original deal and an arrangement that Moscow and Ankara have haggled over for years, as they hammer out provisions for some local workshare arrangements.
A Reset or a Modest Easing of Tensions?
The imposition of CAATSA sanctions on Turkey’s main procurement agency, combined with a sharp downturn in the Turkish economy, which was made worse by COVID-19 and concurrent tensions with Europe, has prompted a shift in Turkish foreign policy. After years of bellicose language, Ankara has launched a charm offensive designed to forgo more harmful European sanctions in order to split Brussels and Washington by winning European support and to create a pathway to lift CAATSA sanctions.
It is against this backdrop that Ankara’s offer to limit use of the S-400 should be viewed. It is a noteworthy first step largely because it deviates from Ankara’s previous talking points. For years, Turkish officials had indicated that they were not amenable to compromise, and instead a working group should be convened under NATO auspices to discuss a technical solution to the F-35 issue. Washington has refused to discuss the issue under NATO, and U.S. allies in Europe have expressed similar concerns to officials in Washington about the S-400 purchase but free-ride on U.S. policy on this issue vis-à-vis Ankara.
The Crete proposal has little technical value for the United States and has certain advantages for Ankara. The proposal does not hinder Turkish use of the system or signal that Ankara will divest itself of the S-400 or the potential second regiment. Instead, the proposal represents a potential opening offer in what is certain to be open-ended discussions.
The Biden administration has sought to change the tone of U.S.-Turkish relationship, giving Ankara a cold shoulder, after Presidents Trump and Erdogan made it a habit to speak frequently on the telephone. The Biden team is signaling quite clearly that the ball for a serious reset in ties requires Ankara to take the first step. The S-400 is the most straightforward of the multitude of bilateral flashpoints because it is not hard to monitor non-deployment and because its resolution can, in theory, be resolved with a binding agreement. Such an arrangement is more political than technical. As such, Ankara would have to accept some form of inspections in return for very little because its leadership has chosen to mend ties with Washington.
The United States has an incentive to explore such an outcome, but it is at less of a disadvantage than Ankara should ties continue to be fraught. The concern is that once the pressure on Ankara’s economy eases, Turkey could simply return to its previous policy of hostility and use the “boxed” S-400 to wrest more concessions from Washington. This scenario is why both Congress and the Biden administration may not be too enthralled with an agreement that does not have some tangible mechanism to monitor non-deployment—if Ankara does as expected and insists on retaining the system. The wild card in all of this, of course, is that Moscow will have reached certain end-user agreements with Ankara, and the Turks cannot simply do what they want with a system that they will be paying off in the near term. Therefore, it is not as simple as Turkey transferring the system to a third country. There is no such country available, and a proposal to put the system in Northern Cyprus, a Turkish territory only recognized as such by Ankara, doesn’t seem feasible. Ankara’s trial balloon could lead to sustained talks. It is an opening offer worth pursuing. However, a true resolution to the S-400 issue may take far more than what Turkey has put on the table.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.