Turkey could damage Nato alliance if it starts up Russian air defence system, analysts warn

US has threatened sanctions if Ankara makes S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries operational this month

Turkey risks fracturing the Nato alliance and destroying its economy if it activates its Russian-made air defence missile system, experts have warned.

The US has threatened immediate economic sanctions if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan carries out the threat he made last month to make his S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries operational this month.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu this week seemed to reinforce Ankara's position when he refused to rule out activation.

But Mr Cavusolglu implied that Turkey would take US Patriot missiles if a “good offer” was made.

“If not, I have to take alternatives," he said.

Sanctions would have a devastating impact on the Turkish economy, which is suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Foreign investors have removed US$7 billion (Dh25.71bn) from the value of Turkish stocks and bonds this year, and its foreign reserves are almost empty.

An IMF report this month predicted Turkey's GDP would contract by 5 per cent and unemployment is expected to double to 30 per cent, with 10 million out of work.

Despite the pandemic, tourist chiefs are still hoping to net $25bn in 2020, which is a drop of $10bn on last year.

But amid the dire warnings on the economy and Nato, experts are not ruling out Mr Erdogan’s readiness to defy pressure from his allies.

He has played a clever game, cementing an alliance with Russia while keeping Nato onside by not activating the missiles.

But he will cross the line if the missiles become operational, said Prof Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute.

“Previously, this was all symbolic posturing by Turkey but now we are really at the threshold where people cannot play games," Prof Clarke said.

"We are at the Rubicon and my guess is that Erdogan will not cross it, but the problem with Erdogan is his complete unpredictability and that he is not afraid of America.

“Sadly, if Turkey goes ahead with activation, then this will threaten the Nato alliance.”

The worries among Turkey’s Nato allies are real. In a deal worth more than $2bn, Turkey has so far taken delivery of up to 200 missiles and 36 launch vehicles.

The S-400 is among the most advanced missile systems in the world. Its radar is capable of reading highly secret data from aircraft passing within its 240-kilometre search radius.

The new F35 fighter-bomber, which carries an immense amount of data, could be vulnerable when flying over the Eastern Mediterranean.

Defence chiefs are concerned that Russia will download the information through hacking or spyware embedded in the S-400s.

Ankara bought the S-400s believing the US was behind the failed 2016 coup attempt.

Unfortunately, Mr Erdogan’s decision cost the Turkish defence industry an estimated $12bn in income after it was thrown out as an F35 project partner.

It also means that Turkey’s air force is without an aircraft that could dominate the skies.

Ankara had restored some good will in Washington with the resistance by Turkish troops in Idlib against Russian-backed Syrian forces.

Signs that Turkey’s financial situation has further deteriorated come after it approached G20 countries, including the US, for currency swap agreements after a severe drop in foreign reserves as a result of Covid-19.

The pro-government media has remained silent on the S-400 suggesting that the lethal virus has influenced Mr Erdogan’s thinking not to drive the Turkish economy over the precipice.