Turkey took delivery on Friday of a first shipment of Russian S-400 missiles, ignoring warnings from Washington, where several members of Congress call for sanctions as the Turkish economy is already on the wane.
The delivery of this sophisticated air defense system marks a spike in the warming of relations between Russia and Turkey, which has distanced itself from the Western camp since a failed coup in July 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ankara and Moscow, however, had been on the brink of collapse in November 2015 when Turkish fighters had shot down a Russian bomber over the Syrian-Turkish border, before gradually normalizing their relations to cooperate especially on the Syrian file.
“The delivery of the first shipment of S-400 air defense system equipment began on July 12 at Murted Air Base in Ankara,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Called Akinci before being renamed Murted, the base in question is considered to be the headquarters of the coup leaders who attempted to overthrow Mr. Erdogan. The third anniversary of this failed coup will be celebrated on Monday.
– American warnings –
In Moscow, a spokeswoman for the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, Maria Vorobieva, confirmed to Interfax that “the S-400 systems have begun to be delivered to Turkey”.
According to a source quoted by the public agency TASS, another plane with other elements of the S-400 is to take off “soon” and a third delivery of more than 120 missiles of different types will be sent “at the end of the summer ” by sea.
In addition, another source told TASS that some 20 Turkish soldiers were trained in May and June in Russia to use the S-400, and another 80 in July and August.
Turkey on Wednesday rejected an umpteenth US warning about the purchase of Russian missiles, calling on Washington not to take measures that could “undermine bilateral relations”.
The United States believes that the Russian systems are not compatible with NATO devices, of which Ankara is a member. A senior NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the organization was “concerned”.
Washington believes that there is a risk that the Russian operators training the Turkish military at the S-400 can at the same time unlock the technological secrets of the new US F-35 stealth aircraft, which Turkey also wants to acquire.
Several members of the US Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, called for the cancellation of F-35 deliveries to Ankara, and called for sanctions against Turkish officials involved in the deal with Russia.
“We had given President Erdogan the choice, he clearly did the wrong thing,” Eliot Engel and Michael McFaul, the main Democratic and Republican elected members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, said in a joint statement.
“That an ally of NATO chooses to ally itself with Russia and Vladimir Putin at the expense of the Atlantic alliance and closer cooperation with the United States is hard to understand,” they continued.
– “Eurasian Power” –
Donald Trump’s new defense secretary, Mark Esper, called his Turkish counterpart Hulisi Akar on Friday. The latter told him that Ankara was “seriously threatened” and that the purchase of the S-400s missiles was “not a choice but an obligation,” according to a statement from the Turkish Ministry of Defense.
According to Akar, Ankara is forced to take action against “intensive attacks” on its border with Syria and Turkey is the only force capable of creating a “safe zone” in northern Syria.
An American delegation is due to visit Ankara next week to continue discussions.
Erdogan said in late June after meeting his US counterpart Donald Trump in Japan that he was not afraid to expose his country to sanctions by buying the S-400 missiles.
“It is no secret that Erdogan wants to make Turkey a Eurasian power, which means finding a balance between relations with Russia and China on the one hand and the United States on the other”, said Nick Heras of the Center for a New American Security. “It is not sure that Turkey will remain forever in the American camp”.