Erdogan’s flawed Greek S-300 analogy

Turkey’s comparison of Greek S-300 and its S-400 ignores differences in acquisition, capability, and how US sanctions apply

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly highlighted Greece’s possession of Russian S-300 air defense missile systems in a clear attempt to deflect criticism from Turkey’s much more recent and far more contentious S-400 acquisition. 

Turkey claimed that the radar of a Greek S-300 based on the island of Crete locked on to its air force’s F-16s operating in international airspace on Aug. 23. Athens rejected the claim, calling it “fake news”. Ankara said it would substantiate its allegation by sending the radar traces to all NATO member states.

The timing of the Aug. 23 incident came a mere week after Russia’s TASS news agency reported, on Aug. 16, that Turkey had signed a contract with Russia for a second regiment of S-400s. Ankara swiftly responded, clarifying that the option for purchasing “a second batch was included in the original plan and the related contract” from 2017. 

In light of the alleged lock-on, Erdogan once again insinuated that there exists a blatant double standard at Turkey’s expense.

“We are now curious to see how the US will respond to Greece activating the S-300 systems against a NATO air force,” he said on Aug. 30. “In addition, the US offered these F-35s, which they did not give to us, to Greece, and paved the way for the S-300s and F-35s to operate together.” 

Turkey was suspended from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and banned from buying any of those fifth-generation stealth jets after it took delivery of the first S-400 components from Russia in July 2019 despite repeated appeals from the US to cancel the order. In December 2020, the U.S. also slapped sanctions on Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in retaliation for the acquisition. 

Erdogan and other Turkish officials have repeatedly suggested that Turkey is being unfairly singled out and penalized for procuring the S-400 while fellow NATO member Greece faces no scrutiny for possessing a similar Russian missile system. 

However, these significant distinctions between the two cases negate Erdogan’s erroneous charge of an unfair double standard. 

For one, unlike Ankara with the S-400, Athens did not seek its S-300 directly from Moscow. The Republic of Cyprus originally ordered the system on Crete in the 1990s. After Turkey threatened to destroy it once it arrived on the partitioned island, it was ultimately shipped to Crete and stored away to defuse the crisis and reduce the risk of war. Greece later test-fired it for the first time in 2013.

Simple timing was the only reason Greece never incurred US sanctions for acquiring its Russian missiles.

“The acquisition of S-300s by Greece took place in the 1990s, decades before the adoption of the CAATSA law,” a State Department spokesperson recently clarified. “Section 231 of the CAATSA sanctions only significant transaction that occurred on or after August 2, 2017.” 

Egypt, which bought a large fleet of MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets and S-300VM missiles from Russia in the mid-2010s, was also not retroactively subjected to any CAATSA sanctions for those highly significant transactions. On the other hand, Washington warned Cairo in 2018 that it could incur CAATSA sanctions if it pushed ahead with its $2 billion deal for advanced Russian Su-35 fighters. 

Furthermore, the Greek S-300 is the older S-300PMU-1 version, a far less advanced and sophisticated system than Turkey’s S-400. The two systems simply are not nearly as comparable as Erdogan would have you believe. And, far from turning a blind eye to all Greek S-300 developments, the US reportedly even prevented Greece from upgrading the system in 2020

Athens had wanted Russia to upgrade its S-300 to the PMU-2 standard, which would have increased its range from 150 to 200 kilometers and improved the command and control and guidance systems to double the accuracy of the missiles. The US vetoed the move, leaving Greece with a much inferior Russian missile system to that of Turkey.

Erdogan’s government has also vacillated between outright denouncing Greece’s possession of the S-300 as irresponsible and destabilizing to suggesting that it could become a potential model for Turkey’s deployment of the S-400. 

All in all, Erdogan and his government’s repeated invocation of the Greek S-300 and suggestion of a double standard at play do not bear scrutiny.

*Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about the political and military affairs and history of the Middle East.

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