NATO ally Turkey is not seeking to antagonise the U.S.-led alliance by purchasing Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles and is in talks with France and Italy to buy similar weapons, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Ankara’s decision to buy the Russian system has been seen in some Western capitals as a snub to the alliance, given tensions with Moscow over Ukraine and Syria, while the deal raised concern because the weapons cannot be integrated into NATO defences.
But Stoltenberg said it was a sovereign decision and that he had talked it through with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
“There hasn’t been any request from Turkey to integrate the S-400 into NATO air defence system,” Stoltenberg told Reuters in an interview on a Belgian military plane returning from Romania late on Monday.
“I spoke with President Erdogan when I met him in September. I said that the kind of capabilities different nations want to acquire is a national decision,” he said of the S-400 system that Turkey has made an advance payment for and hopes to see delivered in 2019.
Stoltenberg stressed that top Turkish officials, as well as Erdogan, had told him Ankara remained a strong NATO ally.
That was despite the S-400 issue and a dispute with Germany over Erdogan’s arrest of German nationals as part of a mass purge following last July’s failed coup bid.
Stoltenberg said Ankara was ready to brief its allies in the U.S.-led 29-member bloc on the reasons behind its decision to buy the S-400 system.
Erdogan has blamed NATO countries for failing to propose a viable alternative to the long-range Russian missiles, but Stoltenberg said Erdogan was now talking to Paris and Rome for similar systems, a move the alliance chief welcomed.
“He told me that Turkey is in dialogue with France and Italy on possible delivery of air defence systems from them … on top of the S-400,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg did not give more details but said Turkey was familiar with the so-called SAMP-T missiles developed because Italy had stationed them in Turkey as part of NATO efforts to help protect Ankara from rocket attacks.