Turkey took deliveries of a Russian missile system for a second day on Saturday without a response from Washington despite repeated warnings against going through with the purchase.
For months, the US has said there would be “very real and negative consequences” in the form of economic sanctions and expulsion from the F-35 stealth fighter project if Turkey were to accept S-400 missiles from Russia.
Russian cargo planes began delivering parts of the surface-to-air missile system at the Murted air base north of Ankara on Friday. Images of missile carriers being unloaded from AN-124 aircraft were tweeted by Turkey’s defence ministry. A fourth plane arrived on Saturday.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported that 120 missiles would arrive by ship at the end of summer. Turkish military personnel have already received training on the system in Russia but it is unclear when the missiles would be operational.
Washington appeared to be considering its response to the arrival of Russian weaponry on the soil of a Nato ally. A scheduled media briefing on the issue by Pentagon officials was twice postponed on Friday at the behest of the White House, according to the Breaking Defence website. Acting US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he was aware of the arrival of the missile system.
Mr Esper later spoke by phone with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar for 30 minutes, during which Mr Akar told him that the S-400 purchase was “a necessity” because of the threat to Turkey. Mr Akar added that the deal did not mean a change in Turkey’s “strategic orientation” and that it was still considering buying US Patriot missiles, the Turkish defence ministry said.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the development as a “historic turning point in Turkish foreign policy”.
“By taking delivery of the S-400s, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan risks long-lasting, if not permanent damage to Turkey's economy and relationship with the West,” he said.
The immediate consequence of the S-400 deal, which was signed in April 2017, is likely to be Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 programme, which it has spent $1.4 billion helping to develop. Training for Turkish pilots at a base in Arizona has already been suspended and its order for 116 planes hangs in the balance.
The US claims the S-400 would compromise the aircraft’s cutting edge stealth capabilities by allowing the system’s radar to collect data on the F-35 over a prolonged period. Turkey has proposed setting up a joint working group to address US concerns, which it says are unfounded.
Turkey also faces measures under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) targeting the purchase of Russian military equipment.
The act requires US President Donald Trump to impose five of 12 possible sanctions ranging from a visa ban to blocking access to the US financial system and denying licences for exports to Turkey.
A year ago, the US applied limited sanctions on Turkey in a row over the detention of an American pastor. These led to a collapse of the Turkish lira and compounded the country’s economic turmoil.
US Congress members on Friday called on Mr Trump to implement sanctions and kick Turkey out of the F-35 project. “Turkey and Erdogan must face stiff consequences for this decision,” Democrat Eliot Engel and Republican Michael McCaul said in a joint statement.
The delivery of S-400 parts saw the lira fall 1.6 per cent against the dollar on Friday while shares on the Istanbul stock market dropped 2.13 per cent.
“The Turkish economy currently is still very frail and any five of the 12 on the sanctions list, plus expectations of more to come, would be devastating for the Turkish economy and markets,” said Timothy Ash, an economist at BlueBay Asset Management in London.
Although US officials have warned against Turkey buying S-400s, Mr Trump, who could potentially delay CAATSA sanctions, seemed to offer encouragement to Turkey when he met Mr Erdogan at a G20 summit in Japan at the end of June.
While not ruling out sanctions, the US president said Turkey had been treated unfairly. Mr Erdogan later said the US would not impose sanctions. “We have heard from him personally that this would not happen,” Mr Erdogan said, adding: “What some people in lower ranks are saying absolutely do not align with Mr Trump’s approach.”
The pro-government newspaper Turkiye reported on Saturday that Mr Erdogan expected US opposition to the S-400 purchase to increase but that eventually US-Turkey relations would "normalise".
The missile deal is seen by many as a Russian ploy to drive a wedge between Turkey and Nato, which it joined in 1952. The issue is one of several disputes between Turkey and the US, including American policy in the Middle East, Washington’s support for a Kurdish militia in Syria that Ankara views as a threat, and the detention of local US consular staff.
The S-400 delivery came ahead of commemorations on Monday to mark the third anniversary of a coup attempt in Turkey that is said to have been orchestrated by a US-based dissident.