U.S. Wants Turkey to Donate S-400 to Ukraine: How Likely is Ankara to Part with its New Missile Systems?

As NATO has sought to deliver Soviet military equipment to Ukraine, and particularly aerial warfare systems ranging from Slovakian S-300s  to Polish MiG-29s, Washington and Ankara have reportedly discussed the possibility of delivering Russian S-400 systems to support Kiev. 

This was first reported by Reuters citing multiple anonymous sources, highlighting that it "floated the suggestion over the past month with their Turkish counterparts.” An unnamed Pentagon official subsequently told Sky News: “We are in continuous talks with Ankara to see it giving up the S-400 system and sending it to Kiev.” In exchange, the official said, Turkey could see a “return to [the Lockheed Martin] F-35 program and the lifting of sanctions.” 

The issue was also raised during U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's visit to Turkey. Turkey signed its first contract to acquire the S-400 in late 2016, and received its first units in 2019. The system is considered one of the most capable in the world, with a 600km detection range, very high mobility, advanced electronic warfare countermeasures and an engagement range over double that of any current Ukrainian operated system. 

The S-400 is technologically two decades ahead of the 1980s S-300 variants fielded by Ukraine and former Warsaw Pact members, and could be a game changer for its defence. 

There are a number of incentives for Turkey to consider passing S-400s on to Ukraine, despite this being an illegal violation of its contract with Russia which prohibits the resale to third parties without Moscow’s permission. Ankara has strongly sided with Kiev in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that broke out in February 24, and accelerated deliveries of locally assembled drones to Ukraine. 

Furthermore, with Turkey having been placed under American economic sanctions for its purchase and evicted from the F-35 fighter program in which it was previously a leading member, the country could see sanctions removed and potentially even regain permission to purchase F-35s. 

These sanctions had been opposed on the basis that the Turkish purchase would “provide substantial funds to Russia's defence sector.” Should the S-400 prove a serious obstacle to Russian forces, it would help drain the resources of an adversary - one with which Turkish forces have frequently clashed in Syria. Furthermore, while Ukraine is unlikely to be able to afford the S-400, the United States and other NATO member states would very likely reimburse Turkey for its value. 

Despite these clear incentives, a number of factors make a sale of the S-400 by Turkey to Ukraine unlikely. Should Turkey be willing to violate its contract and sell on the S-400, the United States would likely be more interested in purchasing the systems for its own armed forces rather than pass them on to Ukraine. 

Older S-300 systems have been used extensively in NATO and allied exercises to simulate the capabilities of Russian air defences, and the S-400 would provide an invaluable asset for preparing NATO units to launch offensives into air space defended by the system. This includes not only Russia, but also China, Belarus, Algeria and in future possibly Iran. 

No other single asset plays as important a role in Russia’s air defence as the S-400, which has been produced in very large numbers as a cost effective means of compensating for the relatively small size of the country's fleet of combat aircraft. Thus passing the systems on to Ukraine would likely be seen as a wasted opportunity, as while stalling Russia’s advance in the country could be beneficial to Western interests Russia’s near complete control of the skies and familiarity with the system means they likely would not last long in Ukrainian hands. 

Turkey has been hesitant to place economic sanctions on Russia, and may well refrain from alienating Moscow with an S-400 transfer considering the high degree of economic interdependence between them. Furthermore, with Turkey looking to build an air defence network around the S-400 and negotiating to acquire more systems, selling the system would potentially lower the Turkish government’s domestic standing making years of tensions with the United States and endurance of sanctions appear to have been for nought. It would be an effective admission that the acquisition had been a mistake. 

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