S-400 systems 'a declaration of Turkey’s independence’, minister says

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu called the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defence systems a declaration of Turkey’s freedom and independence during a rally in Istanbul this week, Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Soylu spoke days after a letter from the U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, set a deadline on July 31 for Turkey to pull out of the deal before it is ejected from the F-35 fighter jet programme.

U.S. and NATO officials fear the presence of Russian-built systems on NATO-allied territory could lead to security breaches, though Turkish officials have insisted the deal will go through.

“The S-400 is a declaration of freedom and independence,” Soylu said. “We asked the United States (for a missile defence system), and they didn’t give it to us. They broke their promise. Now we’re buying one for ourselves, because we’re strong enough. If we’d been strong enough yesterday, we’d have bought it then.”

Negotiations to sell Turkey U.S.-built Patriot systems reportedly broke down during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration over credit issues and disagreements over joint production of the systems.

The U.S. has given Turkey until July to pull out of the deal or face complete expulsion from the F-35 programme. Some  preliminary measures have already been implemented: Turkey’s pilots training in the F-35 programme have been grounded, and the United States stopped sending equipment related to the programme to Turkey in April.

Turkey’s NATO allies argue that the S-400 system is incompatible with the rest of NATO’s defences and would pose a security risk, since its radar system will pick up flight data on the F-35 and other NATO aircraft.

U.S. Brigadier General Todd Canterbury took the decision to ground the six Turkish pilots involved in the F-35 programme since he feared they could take classified information, such as that found in F-35 instruction manuals, if they still had access to them, Foreign Policy reported on Monday.

“(The United States) cannot risk exposing (its) national security technology to Russia,” Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel said.

But Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have insisted the S-400 purchase is a done deal and will not be cancelled. The delivery is due to begin by August, with a schedule published this year listening a date of deployment in Turkey this October.

Meanwhile, Moscow has offered its own hardware as a replacement for the F-35 jets if Turkey is expelled from the programme.

"If Turkey wishes to buy the Su-57s, we are open to cooperation on this front, too," Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russian state defence manufacturer Rostec, said last week.