Turkey has “activated” a Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft defense system to track F-16 fighter jets flown by several other NATO members, U.S. lawmakers and analysts suspect, like reported by washingtonexaminer.com.
“The whole problem with having the S-400 integrated is in order to do that, you have to betray some of the codes and some of the, basically, NATO technology to the Russians,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin said. “And it appears that that’s what they’ve done.”
Western officials have eyed Turkey’s turn to Russian arms dealers with alarm in recent years, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defied the threat of U.S. sanctions to complete the pact. President Trump’s administration expelled Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program to protect the cutting-edge warplane from exposure to Russian defense systems, but a recent standoff between Turkey and Greece created an opportunity to direct the armaments at U.S.-made F-16s.
“We have very credible reports that Turkey activated the S-400 in late August in response to joint military exercises being undertaken by Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and France in the eastern Mediterranean,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a Thursday podcast hosted by the Hellenic American Leadership Council.
Those four countries, all members of the European Union as well as NATO, have been coordinating to force Erdogan to back down in disputes over control of energy-rich waters in the eastern Mediterranean. Their air exercises — known as Eunomia, or good law, in an apparent reference to claims that Erdogan is flouting international law — was widely perceived as a warning to Ankara.
The allegation that Erdogan used the S-400s in response appeared earlier this week in a Greek media outlet, but the Maryland Democrat’s comments show that the anxiety is percolating in Washington as well. “Turkey’s recent reported activation of the S-400 system to detect the U.S. F-16 underscores our grave concerns about Russia’s ability to access sensitive data,” Van Hollen and Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford wrote in a Wednesday letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The allegation has not been confirmed publicly. Still, the lawmakers have renewed their call for Trump to comply with a federal law that requires the imposition of sanctions on anyone who completes a “significant transaction” with the Russian defense industry.
“And, in the case of Turkey, it’s especially egregious because this is a NATO ally, at least they are supposed to be a NATO ally, and yet, they purchased this Russian defense system that can put NATO pilots and NATO at risk,” Van Hollen added Thursday.
The Greek Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the reports. Turkish officials have hinted that the S-400 is operational while declining to state the full scope of its usage.
“There is a misunderstanding that the activation of the S-400 has been delayed,” Turkish defense industries chief Ismail Demir told local media this week. “Think about it this way: You are a country, and you have a system. Would you reveal, as the user, which mode that equipment is in, for how long, or in what capacity you use it? No country would do that.”
Yet Turkey is also preparing to test the weaponry at Sinop, a site on the Black Sea coast where Turkey and the United States monitored the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“We don’t see a Turkey that shies away from operationalizing the S-400,” said former Turkish lawmaker Aykan Erdemir, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst and Erdogan critic who provided a translation of Demir’s remarks. “And now, in Sinop, we also see, again, a willingness to test the S-400 but to make it quite public … by literally moving the system through Turkey’s Black Sea provinces, leaving a lot of evidence behind.”
U.S. officials have struggled to wield policy tools that could punish Erdogan’s undesirable behavior while avoiding a total fracture of the alliance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested last year that Erdogan might avoid the sanctions if the Turkish officials left the S-400 in mothballs, but the testing and the reported tracking of allied fighter jets challenges that compromise.
“This administration’s failure to do so just further emboldens President Erdogan to ignore other US and NATO interests,” Van Hollen said of the sanctions. “There’s no justification for not applying the law that’s on the books. And it is only emboldening Turkey to take more aggressive actions, not just with respect to activating the S-400, but other actions that they are taking in the eastern Mediterranean and other places in the region.”