NATO Prods Turkey to Choose U.S. Over Russia on Missiles

(Bloomberg) -- NATO’s chief embarked on a final push to persuade Turkey to abandon its plan to buy Russian missiles by backing negotiations on an alternative U.S.-made air-defense system.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Ankara on Monday for a two-day visit meant to hammer home the threat the alliance sees in Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. Before he set off on his trip, he told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency that “the interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions.”

“I welcome and encourage the discussions about Turkey’s possible acquisition of a U.S. Patriot missile system,” Stoltenberg said in the interview published on Sunday. He’ll be meeting in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Ankara’s planned purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia is a key source of tension with the U.S., which has threatened to sanction Turkey and expel it from its F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet program.

Washington says the S-400s, if deployed in Turkey, could collect critical information on the stealth capabilities of the F-35, which Turkish companies have helped to develop. As a way out, the U.S. has offered its Patriot systems, and negotiations are proceeding in fits and starts. The U.S. is also concerned that deployment of the missiles in Turkey would mark a further advance in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to engineer a bigger role in the Middle East.

Erdogan, who has drawn closer to Russia as ties with the U.S. have grown more strained, has argued that the purchase is a matter of national sovereignty and security.

“Turkey’s development of relations with different countries and regions is complementary, not incompatible,” Erdogan told a meeting of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue grouping that Stoltenberg attended in Ankara. “The steps that we’re taken to bolster our national security within the framework of the NATO alliance should be evaluated on their own.”

July Delivery

The threat of removing Turkey from a costly fighter jet program or imposing sanctions appear to have done little to persuade Ankara to abandon the S-400s. Turkey is set to take delivery of the Russian equipment by July and has proposed the U.S. and the NATO study how to avoid the risk of compromising sensitive information on the F-35s. It’s also argued that it can still buy Patriot missiles from the U.S. if Washington can give guarantees on their delivery as well as joint production.

Stoltenberg emphasized areas of cooperation by noting the alliance has been reinforcing Turkey’s air defenses since 2013. It’s deployed Spain’s Patriot batteries at Incirlik Air Base and Italian SAMP/T systems close to an early-warning radar at Kurecik, a critical component of NATO’s ballistic-missile defense. And it’s enhanced patrols by AWACS surveillance planes over Turkish territory.

“The mission is important and NATO allies are committed to it,” Stoltenberg said.

Turkey says those measures are inadequate to protect its air space.

Should Ankara go ahead and purchase the Russian system, the severity of sanctions it might face will depend largely on President Donald Trump, who Ankara says is mulling a visit to Turkey around the time the S-400s are scheduled to arrive.

Erdogan is hopeful his American counterpart, with whom he enjoys good relations, will help deflect stinging sanctions. Turkish officials including his son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, remain engaged in back-door diplomacy with the White House.

“Despite growing divergences between Turkey and its Western allies, neither side can afford for political, economic, and security relations to deteriorate beyond a certain point,” Marc Pierini, a former French diplomat and European Union ambassador to Turkey, said on Twitter.

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