Military personnel from Turkey have travelled to Russia to learn how to use its S-400 missile system, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was reported as saying on Tuesday.
Soldiers will be getting to grips with the surface-to-air defence system ahead of its delivery to Turkey in the coming months, the Daily Sabah website reported.
The country’s purchase of the Russian-built defence system has angered fellow NATO member the United States.
Washington has told Ankara it could face sanctions under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it deploys the S-400s.
It has warned that Turkey’s role in building and receiving Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets could also be jeopardised.
American officials claim that the S-400s could pose a threat to the F-35 stealth aircraft and that they are incompatible with NATO systems.
The US is pressuring Turkey into purchasing its rival Patriot missile defence system, but Akar, the former commander of the Turkish armed forces, says that the deal with the Russians has already been struck.
“We tell them [the Americans] it’s a ‘done deal’ but they keep telling us ‘no deal is a done deal’,” the minister was quoted as saying.
“We’ve sent personnel to Russia for S-400 training that will begin in the coming days and will span the following months,” he told a group reporters. “We need to set up an air defence system to protect our 82 million people and our country.”
Hulusi Akar stressed S-400s are for defence purposes only & “no one should be bothered” by their deployment to Turkey
Mr Akar said that Turkey was at threat from missile attacks from terrorist groups across the Syrian border and that regional and global developments posed “grave risks” to Turkey’s national security.
A $2.5-billion deal for the S-400 system was signed between Turkey and Russia in Moscow in December 2017, reports said, after the US had previously refused to sell its Patriot missiles to Turkey.
Akar stressed that the S-400s would be purely for defence purposes and that “no one should be bothered” by their deployment to Turkey.
He also cautioned against linking the S-400 purchase to the delivery of US F-35 jets to Turkey, noting that four Turkish pilots were currently receiving training at an air base in Arizona.
“We, as the Republic of Turkey, fulfil our responsibilities in a serious and sincere manner,” he said.
Turkey has been involved in the F-35 consortium since 1999, Daily Sabah reported, and has spent around $1.2 billion on the jets so far.
A total of 30 of the fighter jets are expected to be delivered to Turkey by 2024, with the first arriving next year, the news site said.
The total value of the programme to Turkish defence industry suppliers is said to be worth around $12 billion.
Turkey says S-400 agreement with Russia is a “done deal”
Mr Akar said, however, that Turkey was ready for any US sanctions.
“We are doing whatever normal bilateral agreements mandate,” he said. “Though there are some issues from time to time, we are pleased that there has been no sharp turn until now…Turkey is also making preparations for the potential implementation of CAATSA sanctions.
“In our talks with the United States, we see a general easing and rapprochement on issues including the east of the Euphrates, F-35s and Patriots.”
He said that linking that S-400 purchase with that of the F-35 jets was “another hurdle” and pointed out that a number of other NATO members also had a stake in the project.
“There is no clause anywhere in the F-35 agreement saying one will be excluded from the partnership for buying S-400s,” he said.
“Turkey has paid $1.2 billion. We also produced the parts ordered from us on time. What more can we do as a partner?”
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters that the American government was “clearly willing to engage” with Turkey and has “continued to engage regarding our concerns on this [S-400] acquisition, but there will be very real and very negative consequences if that happens”.
The comments were condemned by Moscow as “unacceptable”, saying they amounted to an “ultimatum” to Turkey to cancel the S-400 order.
A report by CNBC on Tuesday claimed Turkey had been given less than three weeks to scrap the Russian purchase and buy Patriots instead, or face removal from the F-35 programme and US sanctions.
Main photo, top: S400 anti-aircraft missile system, Moscow, May 2018. Photo © Mikhail Semenov / Shutterstock.com