Turkey has received its first shipment of an advanced Russian air defence system, setting the stage for the escalation of a dispute between the US and a key Nato ally.
The Turkish defence ministry announced on Friday that the first components for the S-400 Triumf system had arrived. They were flown to Murted air base near Ankara, the Turkish capital, on a Russian cargo aircraft.
The Kremlin confirmed that shipments had begun 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 Russian president Vladimir Putin, told reporters.
The Pentagon has already said it would halt all training of Turkish pilots on the US-led F-35 fighter jet programme by the end of the month, and is now almost certain to continue with its plan to fully eject Turkey from the programme by withholding further aircraft deliveries.
The stealth aircraft is just starting to enter service with the US military and more than half a dozen allies around the world.
Ankara also faces the threat of US sanctions aimed at hampering the Russian defence industry, which could inflict severe pain on the fragile Turkish economy.
The prospect of sanctions has been a source of anxiety for foreign investors. The lira was down as much as 1.8 per cent in afternoon trading in London, before trimming its fall to 1.4 per cent.
There has been longstanding bipartisan support among US lawmakers for imposing sanctions on Turkey if it took delivery of the S-400 system. The top Republicans and Democrats of the senate foreign relations and armed services committees on Friday issued a joint statement warning of “consequences” for Turkey over Mr Erdogan’s “misguided” purchase.
“We urge President Trump to fully implement sanctions as required by law under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” they said.
The senators accused Mr Erdogan of being “fixated” on strengthening his ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin “at the expense of the economic prosperity of Turkey and the security of the NATO alliance.”
Acting US defence secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that the Pentagon was aware that Turkey had taken delivery of the missiles, and would speak with Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar in the afternoon.
Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University, described Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 as a “huge success” for Russia and Mr Putin. “For the first time, a Russian S-400 air defence system is located in a Nato member country,” he said.
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.
Turkey has not yet confirmed where its two S-400 regiments will be deployed, but the choice of Murted air base as the location for the first delivery is highly symbolic.
Formerly known as Akinci air base, the site was the headquarters of a violent coup attempt that sought to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, in 2016.
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 the failed putsch, as the Turkish president forged a stronger relationship with Mr Putin.
The Pentagon has argued that the highly advanced radar of the S-400 would 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 to push on with the $2.5bn deal. He has repeatedly argued that Turkey had little choice but to buy the S-400 after Washington refused to allow Turkey to buy a US-made Patriot air defence system. That claim is rejected by US officials.
Further measures to sideline Ankara from the programme are now expected to include 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.
Analysts say such a step could 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 sanctions that could inflict further pain on the country’s economy, which is reeling from the consequences of a currency crisis last year.
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.
Possible measures 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.
Last month, however, 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.
Many investors believe that the two sides will find a way to avoid an escalating dispute. “I don’t see the benefit for the west — and the US in particular — of putting sanctions on Turkey,” said Gilles Seurat, a fund manager at the Paris-based asset manager La Française. “I think that in the end a solution will be found.”
However, American analysts said seeking to exempt Turkey could spark a bitter battle between the US president and Congress. “Turkey has done a remarkable job of alienating everyone in the US Congress,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank.
Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said on Friday that Turkey was still “evaluating” a fresh offer from the US — made at the end of last year — to buy a Patriot missile system. But Washington has told Ankara in the past that any Patriot deal would be contingent on dropping the S-400 purchase.
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