Turkey has received its first shipment of a controversial Russian air defence system, setting the stage for a showdown with Washington that could lead to US retaliation. The Turkish defence ministry said in a statement on Friday that the “first group of equipment” for the S-400 Triumf had arrived at Murted air base in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
The delivery of parts would continue in the coming days, the country’s defence industry directorate said. In an apparent bid to quash speculation that Turkey could agree not to use the system as part of a compromise with the US, it added: “Once the system is fully ready, it will begin to be used in manner determined by the relevant authorities.” The Kremlin confirmed that the shipments had begun and were being carried out on schedule, but declined to say when the systems would be fully installed. “I will just say that everything is being done on time, consistent with the agreements and the contracts. The sides are fulfilling all their obligations,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for president Vladimir Putin, told reporters, citing information from the country’s military-industrial agency.
The Pentagon is now almost certain to push Turkey out of Nato’s next-generation fighter jet programme. Ankara also faces the threat of US congressional sanctions aimed at hampering the Russian defence industry that could inflict severe pain on the fragile Turkish economy. If the dispute escalates, some western analysts fear it could inflict long-term damage on Ankara’s relationship with the US, draw Turkey closer to Moscow and imperil the country’s role within Nato. The prospect of sanctions has been a source of anxiety for foreign investors.
The lira edged lower after news of the delivery, with the dollar recently up as much as 0.45 per cent against the Turkish currency. Discussions about Turkey’s plan to buy the advanced surface-to-air missile system first became public in the autumn of 2016, just months after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, survived a violent attempted coup that left 250 people dead.
Mr Erdogan grew increasingly close to the Russian president Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the failed putsch. US officials repeatedly warned Mr Erdogan that Turkey, a Nato member since 1952, would be hit by sanctions if it went ahead with purchasing the S-400. The Pentagon argued that the equipment could threaten the security of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 next-generation stealth fighter jet programme by collecting sensitive data on the aircraft. Mr Erdogan rejected those arguments and pushed on with the $2.5bn deal.
The Pentagon is now expected to sideline Turkey from the F-35 programme, halting delivery of Ankara’s order of 100 aircraft and beginning the process of cutting Turkish defence manufacturers out of their $12bn role in the supply chain. Patrick Shanahan, the former acting US defence secretary, set a July 31 ultimatum for Turkey to abandon the purchase or have its role in the programme suspended. Analysts say that could also hamper the future capabilities of Turkish armed forces and their co-operation with Nato allies.
At the same time, Turkey also faces the threat of separate sanctions that could inflict pain on the country’s economy at a highly fragile time.
Under legislation passed by Congress in 2017, US president Donald Trump must impose punitive measures on individuals or entities that engage in a “significant transaction” with the Russian government’s defence or intelligence sectors.
Mr Trump must pick five out of 12 possible measures that range in severity, from milder steps such as denying US visas to people targeted by sanctions to banning all banking and foreign exchange transactions that involve any interest relating to those individuals.
Markets were buoyed last month when Mr Trump, who has the right to suspend or waive sanctions, voiced sympathy with Turkey’s argument that it had no choice but to buy the S-400 system.
But analysts say that seeking to exempt Turkey from sanctions could result in a battle between the US president and Congress, which has expressed bipartisan will to punish Ankara for acquiring the Russian technology.
The components were flown to Turkey using Russian AN-124 aircraft, the world’s largest military cargo plane. Moscow has previously said that Turkey has paid part of the cost in advance, and the remainder has been secured on credit.
Last month, the head of Russia’s military-industrial agency said that an initial group of Turkish specialists had been trained to use the system, and that other groups would be trained before the end of the year.