Turkish defence official says Russian missiles to arrive next week
(Adds report on missile loading, paragraph five)
Turkey’s top defence industry official said on Thursday that Russian S-400 air defence missiles would arrive in the country next week, a move likely to raise the prospect of U.S. sanctions.
The Pentagon set July 31 as a deadline for Turkey to drop its plan to acquire the Russian missiles or be expelled from a programme to build and operate F-35 stealth fighter jets. NATO leaders say Turkey’s deployment of the S-400s would allow Russia to glean sensitive information on the advanced fighter jets.
There is also bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress to impose sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that would hurt Turkey’s already struggling economy.
“You will see them when they come next week,” the NTV news channel quoted İsmail Demir, the chairman of Turkey's Defence Industry Directorate as saying in Ankara. “You will see the activities of S-400s next week.”
The Habertürk news channel said on Thursday that the first S-400 battery would be loaded onto two Russian cargo planes on Sunday, while the other parts of the system would be transferred in other stages. In addition to a nine-member Russian team that came to Turkey for the installation of the missiles, another technical team is to arrive on Monday, it said.
Turkish leaders have repeatedly said they would not back down and cancel the order for the Russian missiles, despite the threat of sanctions.
“We know about the issue of sanctions. As we know what they are, we are taking our measures against them,” Demir said. “They will not dissuade us, they will make us stronger.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes he came away from a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 in Osaka on Saturday with assurances that Turkey would not be sanctioned for acquiring the Russian weapons.
“On the subject of sanctions, Trump has already made a statement clearing the issue. We have heard him say no such thing will happen,” Erdoğan told a press conference in Osaka.
Trump shifted the blame for the issue to the previous U.S. administration for refusing to sell Turkey Patriot missile batteries, but stopped short of saying definitively that Turkey would not be sanctioned.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Thursday that Trump had given Erdoğan similar assurances over sanctions during telephone conversations.
“There is no point in being naive or optimistic saying ‘everything will happen the way Trump said’. We are cautious,” Çavuşoğlu said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT
But Erdoğan should not put too much store in what Trump says, given his track record of going back on his word, including assurances he made to Turkey over withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria, academic Bülent Alirıza wrote for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
"Beyond his obvious desire to ensure a good meeting with Erdoğan, it is entirely possible that Trump, who has a reputation for not reading briefing notes prior to meetings with foreign leaders, may not have been fully aware of the limits of his options to protect Turkey from sanctions," Alirıza said, adding,
Needless to say, his inability or reluctance to intervene effectively in shaping policy on this issue, after having privately and publicly reinforced Erdogan’s conviction that he would do so, would inevitably aggravate the disappointment and sense of grievance on the Turkish side.
A Turkish airbase in Ankara is preparing for the installation of the first Russian S-400 missiles to be delivered to Turkey, after the United States objected plans to deploy the air defence systems on the Mediterranean coast, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.
Turkey’s fourth main airbase, formerly known as the Akıncı Airbase, was renamed the Mürted (Apostate) Airbase after it was used in a failed coup attempt in 2016. Its squadrons were disbanded, its aircraft sent to other airbases and it was downgraded to an auxiliary airfield.
According to NTV, the airbase was chosen for the deployment of the S-400s because of its geographical location and its existing infrastructure.
Bloomberg reported in May that Turkey was considering deploying the S-400s on its southern coast in an effort to boost its military capability in the eastern Mediterranean.
Cumhuriyet said Turkey had informed the United States that it planned to install the missiles on the Mediterranean, but U.S. authorities objected, saying such a move would further heighten tensions in the area over hydrocarbon resources.
Turkey aims to avoid U.S. sanctions via a plan named “Peace Deployment”, NTV said on Wednesday. According to the plan, the Russian systems would be activated only against severe threats and used only for military drills during times of peace. Citing unnamed Turkish defence officials, NTV said this did not mean putting the S-400s in a depot as they could be activated in a short time when needed.
“The S-400 is a defence system, not an attack system. It will be activated in case of emergencies. Why would they be activated for no reason?” Çavuşoğlu said on TRT.
NTV said the Turkish military would also prepare infrastructure to deploy the S-400s in other locations and the systems would not be connected to NATO’s radar in Turkey to ease concerns over possible Russian subterfuge.