Russia will deliver its first S-400 missile defense battery to Turkey in 2019, a year sooner than expected, the Russian news agency Interfax reported Tuesday citing state arms export body Rosoboronexport, in a development that could further deepen the diplomatic rift between Turkey and the United States.
Turkey and Russia agreed on the sale, said to be valued at some $2.5 billion, in December 2017 as part of Turkey’s efforts to bolster its defensive abilities, Reuters reported.
Rosoboronexport head Alexander Mikheyev was quoted by Al-Jazeera on Tuesday saying, “The contract on the S-400 to Turkey is being executed within the agreed timeline. In 2019, we will begin to fulfill this contract.”
The statement comes after Rostec, the company that makes the system, said last year it would begin delivery to Ankara in 2020.
At a NATO conference in April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey to back out of the deal, noting that the Russian system was not “interoperable” with NATO defense systems. Turkey is a member of NATO.
But his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish media at the time that the S-400 purchase was “a done deal.”
He added that Turkey could still buy air defense systems from NATO allies: “We need more air defense. We can discuss what we can do for further purchases.”
According to Reuters, NATO officials have said there would be consequences for the purchase of the Russian missile defense system.
Last week, US President Donald Trump signed a defense authorization act that prohibited the sale to Turkey of America’s most advanced stealth fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, if it followed through on its purchase of the Russian missile defense system.
Turkey has been a partner in the international consortium that financed the F-35 since 2002, and plans to purchase 100 of the stealth fighter jets from the US at a reported $1.2 billion, but US officials have seen Ankara’s growing ties with Russia as a threat to the system.
The law signed by Trump last Monday also limits sharing of technical information that Turkey would need to maintain the warplanes.
The law requires a review of US-Turkey relations, including the US military’s use of Incirlik Air Base, and a risk assessment associated with delivering the stealth fighter jets.
Ties between the US and Turkey were already fraught over Washington’s support for Kurdish forces in Syria, and have been further strained by the trial of American pastor Andrew Brunson on allegations of terrorism over his purported link to a failed coup attempt in the country two years ago.
Brunson has been held in Turkey since October 2016, and could face a jail term of 35 years if convicted. He has denied the charges, and Trump has described his detention as a “total disgrace” and urged Ankara to free him immediately.
After Brunson’s appeal was rejected by a Turkish court earlier in August, Trump responded by doubling steel and aluminum tariffs on the country, causing its currency to plummet.
The S-400 purchase defies US sanctions on Moscow and emphasizes Turkey’s increasingly cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has alarmed both the US and the European Union.
Last Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote in The New York Times that unless Washington can “reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect,” Turkey will “start looking for new friends and allies.”
The warning came after Erdogan held a phone call with Putin to discuss economic and trade issues, as well as the Syria crisis.
Turkey’s dialogue with Russia has led some to question its reliability as a NATO partner, and even whether it should remain in the alliance.
Key air base
Incirlik, a Turkish air base in southern Turkey, just 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the border with war-torn Syria, has been a frequent pawn during decades of ups and downs in US-Turkey relations.
Incirlik’s location relative to the Middle East makes it a key strategic asset for the US military and for NATO, and the United States until recently flew bombing runs from there as it fought the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Separately, the facility is thought to hold a stockpile of about 50 American nuclear bombs.
The arrangement works for Turkey too, as the US military provides Turks with intelligence and drone surveillance over the border region, and helps Ankara monitor the outlawed PKK.
Last year, Muharrem Ince, the main opposition candidate in Turkey’s presidential election, threatened to shut Incirlik unless the US extradited Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Muslim preacher Ankara blames for an attempted coup in 2016.
Ince went on to lose the election to Erdogan by a large margin, but Incirlik remains a key issue.
Following the coup attempt, the Turkish base commander at Incirlik was arrested on suspicion of complicity in the plot.
And according to Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, pro-Erdogan lawyers have filed a lawsuit calling for the arrest of US troops at Incirlik on similar suspicions.
Both sides stand to lose if US-Turkey military relations go south, but experts say it would hurt Turkey more.