Turkey’s Russian missiles could defend Ukraine

Russian air defense missile systems in position during a military exercise in Siberia on February 3.


/Associated press

Ukraine needs anti-aircraft weapons, and Turkey has one it should get rid of – a Russian-made S-400 system it bought four years ago that sparked a huge backlash from from the United States, which stopped selling F-35 fighter jets to Ankara in response.

How about a triple play? The United States is helping Turkey send its S-400s to Ukraine to defend against Russian fighter jets, offering the Turks a new American replacement, and getting F-35 shipments back on track. It would also help repair U.S.-Turkey relations in the face of Russian aggression.

Ukraine’s desperate struggle to repel the Russian invasion hinges on refusing Russian air dominance. While Ukraine has retained some air defense capability, it does not have the means to retain Russian air power indefinitely. Once Russia dominates Ukrainian skies, Ukrainian ground forces will be extremely vulnerable, as will weapons lines and aid from the West.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded with the West for more aircraft and air defense. The start of Russian air attacks on military airfields and training sites in western Ukraine, along with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s warning that Western aid shipments are “legitimate targets”, demonstrate that Ukraine needs better long-range, high-altitude air defences. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby recently noted that Ukraine needs new ground-based air defense systems more than Polish MiG-29s, whose deal was scuttled after the Pentagon said that he did not consider the deal “tenable”.

Ukraine has limited stocks of Soviet-era S-300 mobile missile systems. These weapons are effective but dated, and Ukraine had to use them wisely. Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia have S-300s, which could be transferred quite quickly. Thomas Warrick of the Atlantic Council has suggested that the United States include the S-300s as part of a lend-lease program for Ukraine, and NATO is reportedly exploring this idea .

When Turkey first signed an agreement with Russia for the purchase of S-400 batteries, the United States and other allies saw the integration of the Russian system into NATO air defenses as a serious intelligence threat. In response, the United States suspended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, and Congress eventually made Turkey subject to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, which made it ineligible to purchase F-35 fighters to modernize the Turkish Air Force. One can imagine Vladimir Putin mocking the discord and harming the sale of forged S-400s within NATO.

There is no doubt that the S-400s would strengthen Ukraine’s air defense capability, and their elimination from the Turkish inventory should pave the way for Turkey’s reintegration into the F-35 consortium and the repeal Sanctions. The gap in Turkish air defenses can be filled in the short term with US Patriot batteries and possibly with Turkey’s own Siper anti-aircraft missiles, which are under development.

It would be symbolic if Russian-made missiles shot down Mr. Putin’s warplanes in Ukraine which bomb refugees, maternity hospitals and kindergartens. Having delivered the weapons to Turkey in the first place, Mr. Putin can hardly complain when Turkey sends them to a friend and neighbor to defend against wanton aggression. Indeed, at the end of last year, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov encouraged Turkey to buy more S-400s: “This type of cooperation between Russia and Turkey should not pose a threat for any country. . . because the system is not offensive, it is defensive.

Delivering Turkish S-400s to Ukraine would help Ukraine, NATO, the United States and Turkey and only harm Russia. Using Russian-made S-400s, sold to Turkey in an effort to split NATO, to shoot down Russian planes bombing Ukrainian cities would be poetic justice.

Mr. Kolbe is director of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was an operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency for 25 years.

Joe Biden calls Vladimir Putin a ‘war criminal’ as allegations that Russia is targeting civilians rise in cities including Kyiv, Mariupol, Irpin and Melitopol. Images: Mariupol City Hall/Azov Battalion/AP/Sputnik/Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the March 18, 2022 print edition.

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