A Russian shipment carrying the first components of the S-400 surface-to-air defense system landed in Turkey on Friday, in a move that has been opposed by the Pentagon and could damage Turkey’s relationship with the United States and other NATO allies.
Washington has long warned that if Turkey were to acquire the Russian system, the United States may impose harsh economic sanctions and revoke Turkey’s participation in American military programs.
Here are some key questions about how the S-400 ended up in Turkey and what may come next:
Q: What is the S-400 air and missile system?
A: It’s a Russian-made, long-range, surface-to-air defense system. The S-400 is one of Russia’s most sophisticated pieces of military equipment, with advanced surveillance radar and a suite of missiles that can closely track and target aircraft from the ground.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he chose to go ahead with the $2.5 billion purchase from Russia because the United States did not make an adequate offer on its own Patriot air defense system. NATO currently has that system stationed in Turkey for its own purposes in Syria, but Turkey never purchased it from Washington. NATO officials have raised concerns that the S-400 purchase will not be compatible with other systems already in use in Turkey.
Q: Why is the United States opposed to Turkey owning the S-400 system?
A: Turkey had previously ordered around 100 F-35 stealth jet fighters from the United States, and almost 1,000 parts of the jet are even made by Turkish companies. U.S. officials fear that if Turkey has both the F-35 and Russia’s most advanced air defense system in its hands, then Russians may gain access to F-35 technology and later target its weaknesses.
In late May, Kathryn Wheelbarger, U.S. acting assistant secretary of defense said that the “S-400 is a Russian system designed to shoot down an aircraft like the F-35.”
She said “it is inconceivable to imagine Russia not taking advantage of that [intelligence] collection opportunity.”
Last week, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrew said that “Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.”
The episode has put the United States in an uncomfortable bind. Washington is eager to prevent Russia from having access to its advanced military equipment, but the United States also relies heavily on Turkey as an important partner in the region because of its strategic location bordering Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Q: What has Washington threatened to do about it?
A: U.S. officials have previously threatened to cancel shipments of F-35 jets to Ankara and impose economic sanctions on Turkey through the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
And in April, the Pentagon announced it was suspending Turkey’s participation in a program that trains pilots from U.S. allies to fly the F-35 until Turkey agreed to cancel purchase of the S-400 system.
But at the Group of 20 meeting in Tokyo last month, President Donald Trump blamed the entire dispute on the Obama administration, saying “it’s not really Erdogan’s fault.” He also said he didn’t think the United States would impose sanctions on Turkey over the ordeal.
U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have opposed Turkey having both the S-400 system and F-35 jets.
Q: How has Turkey defended its decision to go forward with the purchase?
A: Erdogan has said acquiring the Russian system is in line with Turkey’s sovereign right to defend itself.
Last month, Erdogan urged the United States to not let the purchase of the S-400 deteriorate strong ties between the two countries. “They should think deeply, because losing a country like Turkey will not be easy,” Erdogan said, referring to officials in Washington. “If we are friends, if we are strategic partners, then we should handle this issue between each other.”
Turkey also said it would keep the U.S. and Russian equipment separate to avoid allowing Russian access to U.S. stealth technology.
Erdogan has expressed confidence that his relationship with Trump will override U.S. sanctions concerns.
“I say this very openly and sincerely, our relations with Trump are at a place that I can call really good,” Erdogan said in June. “In the event of any issues, we immediately work the phones.”
Q: What has NATO said about all this?
A: On Friday, a NATO official told The Washington Post that the alliance was “concerned about the potential consequences of Turkey’s decision to acquire the S-400 system. Interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions.”