Disquiet in Nato as Turkey, Russia inch closer to arms deal

Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems riding through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow in May.
Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems riding through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow in May.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ISTANBUL • Turkey and Russia are inching towards an accord for the first major Turkish weapons purchase from Moscow, troubling Ankara's allies in Nato even though the deal may not ultimately materialise.

According to Turkish and Russian officials, all preparations have been made for the purchase of a sophisticated S-400 missile defence system, Ankara's most significant accord with a non-Nato supplier.

But despite confident claims, the deal has yet to be officially inked. Analysts remain sceptical over whether Turkey will take delivery of the surface-to-air missile defence batteries. Some argue that the message sent to the West matters more than the actual purchase.

The Pentagon has sounded alarm, saying bluntly that "generally it's a good idea" for Nato allies to buy inter-operable equipment.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan boasted: "God willing, we will see the S-400s in our country."

He has argued that Turkey's fellow Nato member and occasional regional foe Greece has Russian-made S-300 batteries on its southern island of Crete, originally bought by Cyprus in the late 1990s but passed on to Greece to prevent escalation on the divided island.

Mr Dmitry Shugaev, the head of Russia's military-technical cooperation agency, told the Kommersant daily the deal was "almost done", with just some "subtleties" to solve. He said the United States "may be indignant, but Turkey is an independent state and can decide for itself".

However, Mr Igor Delanoe, deputy director of the French-Russian Analytical Centre in Moscow, said he was "very sceptical" that the deal would come to fruition.

Russia was uncomfortable with the transfer of technology and production localisation demanded by Turkey, he said. Moscow also had a demand backlog from its own forces, as well as key client China.

"Both Moscow and Ankara use this story on the political level to show their respective dissatisfaction to the West," Mr Delanoe said.

Russia's relations with Nato have been in crisis over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and for backing pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

But while still a key member of Nato, Turkey's ties with the US in particular have been strained over Washington's support of the People's Protection Units Syrian Kurd militia, which Ankara considers a terror group.

The fact that the two countries are even discussing the purchase is a rich symbol of the transformation in relations since a reconciliation deal last summer following the shooting down by Turkey of a Russian plane over the Syrian border in November 2015.

Moscow and Ankara remain on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, with Russia backing the Damascus regime and Turkey the rebels.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Disquiet in Nato as Turkey, Russia inch closer to arms deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe