The referendum victory of April 16, 2017, which gave Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unchecked powers, has left Turkey bitterly polarized. Fresh rounds of political tensions are likely in a country where half the population loves the president and the other half hates him. Erdoğan’s longer-term game plan is to ensure that Turkey will continue to elect conservative, nationalist presidents and governments after his day is done.
Since 2004, Turkey has descended from winning accession talks with the EU to the “sick man of European democracy.” President Erdoğan, in his efforts to consolidate his conservative and nationalist voters, continues to fan fears of real or fabricated enemies, with particular emphasis on “Christian crusaders.” Few Turks (or Kurds) appear to care about Ankara’s disturbing and ever-worsening democratic deficit. Twenty-first century Turkey is behaving like the country described decades ago by a Turkish philosopher: “[It] is a ship heading east. Those aboard think they are heading west, but they are just running west on a ship sailing east.”
The rising tide of an aggressive blend of nationalism and Islamism might be prompting Ankara to pursue its own WMDs, and its preference appears to be long-range missiles. As Turkey feels more threatened by real or (mostly) imagined enemies, it increasingly views maximum possible military deterrence as essential to both survival (a defensive goal) and assertiveness (an offensive one). Precise long-range missiles are unlikely, and nuclear warheads even more so. What matters is not whether Turkey can build up a dangerous arsenal but why it wants one.
Turkey, a NATO ally, may be on the brink of purchasing an air defense system from Russia. If the Turks place that weaponry on their soil, they will no longer have access to the NATO satellite signals critical for that very defense system to be useful. And if that is not reason enough to hesitate, Turkish officials might recall that a year and a half ago, Ankara suffered a serious diplomatic crisis with its prospective air defense system supplier. Considering the fragile situation in neighboring Syria, another Turkish-Russian rift is not unlikely. Would a Russian air defense asset protect Turkey against Russian air power?