Turkey is inching closer to buying Russian-made S400 missiles, despite a recent flurry of entreaties from the US for it to remain reliant on its Nato ally for air defence, according to two officials familiar with the matter.
Turkey and Russia have agreed a price of as much as $3bn for four missile battery systems and a number of missiles, a senior Turkish official told the FT.
Bloomberg earlier reported the price as $2.5bn, which included a requirement that two of the batteries be manufactured or assembled in Turkey as part of a “technology transfer” agreement.
A Turkish official, who requested to remain anonymous, said the deal was a preliminary agreement. If it goes through, it will be the first measurable sign of the strain Turkey’s 65-year Nato membership is under.
The US is sharing the Incirlik air base in Turkey to fight Isis, but Turkey’s relationship with its Nato allies has been strained by the continued US support for a Kurdish militia in Syria.
German military staff at Incirlik are scheduled to leave after a political disagreement between Ankara and Berlin resulted in Turkey denying German MPs permission to visit their soldiers at the base.
At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish president, has attempted to restore relations with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, which soured after a Turkish jet shot down a Russian fighter aircraft near the Syrian border in November 2015.
Mr Erdogan needs a good working relationship with Mr Putin to achieve his goals in Syria, which include the defeat of the US-backed Kurdish militia.
“Arms purchases are not only about arms purchase,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a former major in the Turkish military and now an analyst at the Tepav think-tank. “This is a political and economic issue as well.”
The S400 system would be a complicated piece of equipment to integrate into Turkey’s air defence system, Mr Ozcan said. It must co-ordinate with Turkey’s existing radar and satellite tracking systems before it can shoot down an incoming aircraft, which is not currently possible, he said.
This raises the possibility that the deal, which has been discussed for several years without actually being concluded, is part of Mr Erdogan’s complicated effort to tread a line between Russia and the US to achieve his own goals.
The current Nato-led air defence system deployed in Turkey cannot be pointed along the Aegean coast or towards Armenia. In addition, after artillery fire from Isis and Kurdish militia from inside Syria killed a number of Turkish citizens last year, Mr Erdogan complained that Nato moved too slowly to deploy a US Himars system along the Syrian border.
US officials, including air force chief of staff General David L. Goldfein, met Turkish counterparts this week to lobby against the potential purchase of the S400 and to ensure a Turkish commitment to buy 100 F35A fighter jets from US manufacturers remained on track.
“We are committed to, and invested in, a long-term relationship with friend and ally, the Republic of Turkey,” Mr Goldfein said on Wednesday.