Russia and Turkey Tryst with the S-400s in Libya

By Debalina Ghoshal

Owing to the ongoing Turkey-Egypt clashes near Libya, there are reports that Turkey could soon deploy Russian S-400 air and missile defence system in Libya.

Turkey has been receiving the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system despite United States and NATO’s objections .

Turkey aspires to become a regional players not just in Middle East but also farther in North Africa (MENA) region.

To do so, it is expanding its engagements in the region.

One of the tools of engagement by Turkey is a  ‘defense by denial’ strategy involving air and missile defense forces.

In July 2020, reports came in that Turkey which was sending military cargo plane flights to western Libya to support the Tripoli based United Nations backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

They could send the S-400s to Libya for supporting the government.

In May 2020, Turkey started its process of deployment of S-400 systems after it received them from Russia.

Turkish ‘defence by denial’ in its Al Watiya base Libya  included F-16s, Bayraktar B2, S Anka drones, two batteries from the MIM-23 Hawk air defence system that were attacked by Rafale.

Egypt, France and Russia are supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), the main rival of GNA commanded by Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Russia is reported to have deployed its sophisticated air and missile defense system too in Libya which could be S-300s or S-400s.

One of the reasons for Russia to deploy these sophisticated air and missile defense systems is because of Turkish drones threaten Russian air defence systems in Libya vulnerable.

Russia is also apprehensive of the GNA’s ambitions to take over the coastal city of Sirte, which is a strategically crucial location due to Libya’s oil fields.

The GNA also plans to take over al Jufra air base– another strategic location.

Both these locations are under the control of the LNA and form components of Russian red line.

Russia has of late has disassociated itself with French alliance in the region to protect the LNA.

Turkey and Russia as of July 2020 are also working on truce over the issue in Libya. In the recent, with Turkey’s fall out with the NATO regarding its choice of missile defence other than a NATO system, and the growing suspicion in Turkey about the United States, especially after failed attempt for coup, have driven Turkey closer to Russia.

However, Turkey’s President, Recep Erdogan top security adviser, Ibrahim Kalin did clarify that a ceasefire would only be possible if the LNA forces pull back from the city of Sirte and Jufra.

Hence, even amid the scope of peace between Russia and Turkey, there are short-comings.

Both Turkey and Russia have increased their cooperation in other areas and hence, deployment of a sophisticated missile defence system as a counter to each other’s offensive capabilities could jeopardise the growing bonhomie between the two countries.

Again, deployment of air and missile defence systems in the region would jeopardise the scope to create “conditions for a lasting and sustainable ceasefire.”

Nevertheless, Turkey could deploy the S-400 air and missile defence system as a bargaining chip to maintain its goodwill vis-à-vis both Russia and the United States.

Even more crucial for Turkey as it is at cross roads with both Russia and the United States on certain issues- especially as both Russia and the United States’ policies towards Turkey are not very clear cut.

Already Turkey has been assertive in its approach and policies towards global and regional security issues.

For instance, Turkey, being a NATO member has blocked NATO’s plan for defence of Poland and the Baltic States that surround Russia.

It has also blocked any scope of partnership of NATO with countries like Israel, Armenia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Deployment of key strategically important weapon systems in key regions can enable Turkey to ensure that the balance of power in Libya region is not one sided and that Turkey can use such military postures in future to meet their political and strategic demands.

For instance, a sophisticated missile defence in Libya could make it impossible for France to attack Turkey’s offensive forces and Turkey could use this opportunity to not just further its ambitions in Libya but also coerce NATO countries to declare some of the Kurdish groups as terrorists which as of now NATO has refrained from doing.

Moreover, Turkey wanted UN-led talks on Libya and a robust defensive capability that deny adversaries offensive advantage could open scope for UN-led talks.

However, the fact that Russia too may have deployed the S-300s or the S-400s in Libya implies that Turkey could only strengthen its ‘defense by denial’ mechanism.

Ankara would probably refrain from an all- out attack on its adversaries’ military capabilities in Libya as it would be sure that the S-400s or the S-300s could intercept its offensive capabilities and minimise its chances of gaining offensive advantage.

Such balance by Russia could negate Turkey from gaining an upper hand in any negotiations regarding Libya.

In short, both Russian and Turkey’s possible deployment of the S-400s would give room for both the sides that support GNA and the ones who support LNA to maintain balance of power in the region without tilting the balance of power towards one side.

But Turkey would open itself to Russia cutting off its supply of S-400s to Turkey itself, but also could use the event to highlight the notion that the S-400 is a valuable chess piece on the military chessboard.