Here’s What You Need To Remember: If NATO can dismiss the S-400 deal as an unfortunate one-off affair, then a Su-35 import contract would confirm what some western analysts maintain to be a long-term reorientation in Turkish defense priorities. The Russian security establishment understands and seeks to exploit the fact that mere public discussion of Turkey’s Su-35 purchase bears a disruptive influence on US-Turkish relations.
In a move that threatens to reaffirm the growing military rift between Turkey and NATO, Russia’s defense industry is stepping up its efforts to sell Ankara its Su-35 fighter on the heels of the S-400 deal that saw Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 program.
Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov provided a clear statement of Russian intent earlier last week: “If our Turkish colleagues express their interest, we are ready to work out the delivery of the Su-35.” This offer marks a departure from Russia’s initial overtures to sell Turkey its upcoming Su-57 fighter, made earlier this summer.
As previously described by The National Interest, the Su-35 is currently Russia’s most advanced air superiority fighter. Designed as an interim solution to sustain the Russian Air Force (VKS) in anticipation for the Su-57, the Su-35 strikes a compelling blend of performance and role versatility with its modernized avionics suite, Vympel R-77 air-to-air missiles, and an air-launched variant of Russia’s Kalibr anti-ship missiles. Chemezov’s offer reflects Russia’s confidence that the Su-35, much unlike the Su-57, can be mass-produced in sufficient quantities to satisfy Turkey’s early 2020’s delivery timeframe.
Chemezov’s announcement came just two days after Washington formally removed Turkey from the F-35 program, costing Ankara billions of dollars in F-35 contract work and technology transfer. The Trump administration’s reluctant decision comes amid US concerns that housing the S-400– a “Russian intelligence-collection platform”– in close proximity to the F-35 stands to compromise the stealth capabilities of the latter.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated repeatedly over the prior months that he intends to go beyond the S-400 system in deepening the Russo-Turkish defense partnership, most notably manifested in his plans to jointly produce the upcoming S-500 missile defense system with Russia.
Erdogan’s government has so far kept its fighter procurement plans close to its vest, perhaps owing to an embarrassment of riches. In addition to the Su-35, Turkey’s current crop of prospective import options– assuming no further western sanctions– include the Eurofighter Typhoon and Sweden’s Saab JAS 39 Gripen. But the Su-35’s most salient competition comes from Turkey itself, in the form of Ankara’s long-running ambition to produce its own indigenous fifth-generation, the “TF-X” fighter. The TF-X project enjoys widespread political support throughout the Turkish security establishment but is being stymied by a prohibitively expensive price tag and ongoing disputes with a British component supplier. Finally, the Turkish defense sector is well versed in leveraging Russia and the west against one another in pursuit of favorable import terms; it is relatively unlikely, but not impossible as a long-term prospect, for Ankara to import US fighters if it reconciles with Washington over the coming decade and reaffirms its commitment to NATO’s common defense infrastructure.
If NATO can dismiss the S-400 deal as an unfortunate one-off affair, then a Su-35 import contract would confirm what some western analysts maintain to be a long-term reorientation in Turkish defense priorities. The Russian security establishment understands and seeks to exploit the fact that mere public discussion of Turkey’s Su-35 purchase bears a disruptive influence on US-Turkish relations, notes military expert Alexander Perendzhiev. Nevertheless, the Kremlin hopes to utilize the mutual goodwill generated by the S-400 deal to score more than just a moral victory.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov’s recent comments on the sale of Russian military aircraft to Turkey reflect an apt summary of western fears: “Why not? The precedent has already been set.”
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University. This article first appeared last year and is being republished due to reader interest.