A Russian plane carrying first parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system lands at Murted Airport near Ankara, Turkey on July 12 2019. TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY
A Russian plane carrying first parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system lands at Murted Airport near Ankara, Turkey on July 12 2019. TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY

Ankara — Turkey says it has received the first major deliveries of a Russian missile-defence system, which purchase has drawn the threat of US sanctions over its potential to undermine Nato’s military capabilities. The lira has subsequently weakened.

A Russian plane carrying parts for the S-400 batteries landed at an air base near the Turkish capital of Ankara on Friday, Turkey’s top defence board said. The currency fell on the news and was trading 1.7% lower at $5.7720 as of 4.13pm in Istanbul. Senior US defence department officials were scheduled to hold a media briefing at the Pentagon outlining the US response to Turkey at 11.15am in Washington.

Washington has threatened to punish Turkey over the purchase, which it says puts at risk the Pentagon’s costliest programme, the F-35 fighter jet. The US says the Russian air-defence system is designed to shoot down Nato aircraft and can collect critical intelligence that could compromise stealth capabilities of the fifth-generation fighter. In an attempt to dissuade Turkey from buying the S-400s, the US said last month that it was winding down Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme. Turkish manufacturers have been helping build parts of the jet.

The Turkish move to start taking delivery of the S400 missiles is a major strategic advance for Russia as it seeks to counter the US, said Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian international affairs council, a Kremlin-founded think-tank. Turkish and Russian TV broadcast footage of the delivery of the missiles.

“It is a victory after Ankara came under so much pressure that many, even in Russia, didn’t believe [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan would go through with it as it will entail severe consequences for Turkey,” Kortunov said by phone. “It shows the US inability to dictate its will to one of Nato’s key members and opens new avenues for Russo-Turkish strategic co-operation.”

Blaming Barack

Turkey has been adamant that it needs the advanced air defence system, and says it was forced to buy from Russia because Nato allies, including the US, failed to meet its defensive needs on Turkish terms. After meeting with Erdoğan on the sidelines of a G20 summit last month, US President Donald Trump blamed problems between the countries on his predecessor Barack Obama’s failure to make a deal with Turkey.

“They wouldn’t let him buy the missile he wanted to buy, which was the Patriot,” Trump said, saying the Obama administration had treated Erdoğan unfairly. The US has repeatedly offered to sell Patriots to Turkey, but has not offered the technology-sharing that the Turkish government says it needs to develop its domestic production capabilities.

Trump’s suggestion that he might spare Turkey the worst of sanctions over the S-400 purchase helped mitigate the impact on the Turkish lira, although other US officials and members of Congress have said that sanctions will be triggered automatically under current US legislation. Investors have long priced in risks associated with the systems’ delivery, the first phase of which started with the Russian plane landing in Ankara, the defence board said.

“Delivery of the parts of the system will continue in the coming days, and it will be used as determined by related authorities when the system is completely ready,” according to the presidency of defence industries.

Russia’s official Tass news agency reported that the missiles for the S-400 system would be sent by ship, probably late in the summer, citing an unnamed military diplomatic source. More than 120 guided missiles would be included in the shipment, it said.

The relationship between the US and Turkey has deteriorated over the course of the civil war in Syria, in which US backing for Kurdish militants has frustrated Turkey, which considers the group an extension of separatists it’s fighting at home. Erdoğan has also criticised the US for not extraditing Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Turkey accuses of masterminding a failed military coup in 2016.

In a statement Friday, Turkey’s defence ministry said Turkey and Russia signed a contract for the missile-defence system on April 11 2017. 

With Henry Meyer

Bloomberg