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For more than two centuries, control over Constantinople/Istanbul - influence if not outright occupation - has been a dream of Czars, Soviet Commissars, and Russian diplomats. Similarly, for decades since the formation of NATO in 1949, sowing divisions in the transatlantic alliance has been a strategic goal of Moscow.

  • Russia's sale of the advanced S-400 air defense system to Ankara and the termination of any Turkish role in the F-35 stealth fighter program advance both objectives for Moscow.

The NATO Alliance, and U.S.-European relations, in general, have been under growing stress over the last decade, quite apart from for any mischief from Moscow over the S-400. As Atlantic Council president Fred Kemp opined over the last week, the transatlantic trade skirmishes, of which the S-400/F-35 spat is a part, are shaping up to be the "wrong war, at the wrong time;" the front in this war includes:

  • Boeing and Airbus subsidies
  • A contemplated European "digital services tax" (with the French in the lead) on U.S. hi-tech firms
  • Trump threats to impose tariffs on European car imports
  • Sharp words from the White House over the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany 

Notwithstanding this long and growing array of mistrust across the Atlantic, President Trump and his national security team were right to sever Turkey completely from the F-35 program. The opportunities for compromise of stealth secrets embedded in the F-35 were simply too great to allow stationing and exercising of the aircraft anywhere near S-400 batteries. 

The question now, however, is where does this leave Turkey, the U.S., and the NATO Alliance, going forward? The prospects for face-saving (and technology-saving) off-ramps are not good. Senator Lindsey Graham is exploring one such ramp: an agreement not to impose U.S. sanctions if the Turks don't operationalize (i.e., turn on) their systems; success here seems unlikely given President Erdogan's increasingly nationalistic stance. 

  • However, the possibility of an extreme outcome - expelling Turkey from NATO - is not in the cards, even should Turkey up the ante by purchasing advanced Russian fighters or expelling the US from Incirlik airbase. 
  • Further, there exists no formal process for expelling a NATO member. Despite Turkish President Erdogan's "Moscow play," the strategic logic of keeping Turkey even loosely connected with the west remains sound, as it has been since Turkey's admission to NATO in 1952.
  • Perhaps the best bottom line on the road ahead with Ankara is to repeat the words of Stephen Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a respected Turkey analyst; Cook stressed that, "While Turkey remains formally a NATO member, it is not a partner of the U.S.  Washington can work with Ankara where it remains possible, work around the Turks where it is necessary, and work against them where it has to." 

One hopes that the Trump National Security team has long ago examined other basing and intelligence options in the eastern Mediterranean (Greece? Bulgaria?) to offset the loss of Turkish assets should tensions continue to rise.

  • In the end, Turkey will be the strategic loser. And while Russia may not be dictating policy in Ankara, occupying Istanbul, or dissolving the North Atlantic Treaty, Putin has used the S-400 to advance generations-long Russian goals. He won't stop.