Turkey says Russia may deliver S-400 missiles soon, ruling out US demand for delay

A new S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia, on March 11, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

ANKARA (BLOOMBERG) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled out US demands that Turkey delay the purchase of an advanced Russian missile-defence system, and said Moscow may bring forward the delivery date from July.

"It is definitely out of the question for us to step back on the issue of S-400s, it is a done deal," President Erdogan said in a televised speech in Istanbul late Saturday. "Our deal was to have the S-400s delivered to us by July; they will probably bring that forward."

Mr Erdogan's stance could further strain ties between the Nato allies.

The United States last week asked Ankara to delay taking the system to 2020, according to people familiar with the proposal. Pushing ahead with the deal carries a high risk of US sanctions that could plunge Turkey into renewed economic turmoil.

The accord with Moscow also highlights both Turkey's aspirations for an increasingly independent role in regional policies and the mutual erosion of trust with Washington.

"The S-400 is a defensive system and has a long range. As for the payment plan, Russia has given us very suitable conditions," Mr Erdogan said, adding that Turkey had sent 100 engineers to Russia to help make the weapons.

"After the S-400s, the S-500s are also considered and there will be co-production of S-500s as well," he added.

The proposed purchase has angered US President Donald Trump's administration, which argues that integrating such a system into Nato's second-largest army could help Moscow gather critical intelligence on the stealth capabilities of the next generation F-35 fighter planes, which Turkish manufacturers help build.

Mr Erdogan dismissed the US argument and said Turkish military experts were good at deciding what to purchase.

The US has warned that Turkey could face expulsion from Lockheed Martin's F-35 programme and also face sanctions under two pieces of legislation: the Magnitsky Act and CAATSA, which allows the punishment of entities doing business with parts of the Russian state.

A bipartisan group of eight senior US House members introduced a resolution last Wednesday calling on Turkey to cancel the planned S-400 acquisition.

When the US last sanctioned some members of the Turkish government, over the arrest of an American preacher, it amplified problems already haunting the nation's economy. An ensuing collapse in the value of the currency hastened the country's first recession in a decade. The lira has been sliding for several weeks amid renewed tensions with the US and a controversial decision to repeat a mayoral election in Istanbul in June after Mr Erdogan's party lost the previous vote.

Turkish companies were set to produce parts worth billions of dollars for the jet, and the air force planned to buy about 100 of the planes. Deliveries of F-35 equipment to Turkey have been suspended. Mr Erdogan downplayed the snag and said they will be eventually delivered.

"Sooner or later, we will receive the F-35s as well as their parts," said Mr Erdogan. "Inshallah, S-400s will arrive in our country, too."

The US balked for years at selling its Patriot air defence system to Turkey and sharing its technology at the same time. In December, the State Department notified Congress that it had proposed allowing the sale, a gambit seemingly designed to get Mr Erdogan to scrap the S-400 deal. Although Ankara remains engaged in talks with Washington, it is still asking for the transfer of the US missile technology.

Responding to US threat of sanctions, Mr Erdogan said that "it's 2019. We're not in 1974", when the US imposed a crippling arms embargo on Turkey after its military invaded northern Cyprus.

Turkey believes it has valuable bargaining chips, including an early-warning radar at Kurecik, a critical part of Nato's ballistic-missile defence capabilities, and the Incirlik Air Base, close to Syria.

"There is a math of war and we've got to apply it well. We will take steps accordingly," Mr Erdogan said.

"We're just right now intensively giving necessary lessons in Syria" he said, referring to Turkish shelling of US-backed Kurdish militants in northern Syria.

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