Turkish minister denies Russian S-400 delivery will be delayed

(Updated with more information on the reported delay)

No delay has been announced for Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Thursday, as 100 Turkish soldiers prepare to travel to Russia for training on the new systems.

Çavuşoğlu’s statement referred to earlier reports that a delay could be expected in the S-400 purchase, which was announced in December 2017.

Turkish journalist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş tweeted on Thursday that an "indefinite delay" was on the cards for the S-400 system despite months of assurances by Turkish officials that the deal was going through.

In comments reported by Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, Çavuşoğlu said no statements had been made about a delay.

The non-committal statement did not conclusively refute rumours that Ankara is preparing for a u-turn on its controversial deal with Russia weeks before it had been set to enter a crucial phase.

Russian state news service TASS announced on Tuesday that Turkish soldiers were expected for training in Russia by the end of this month, and the Russian systems have been scheduled to arrive in Turkey in July and scheduled for installation in October.

The S-400 has been a critical source of tension between Ankara and Washington, which is moving to block transfer to Turkey of the new-generation F-35 fighter jets.

The latest stride in that direction – a spending bill introduced on Thursday – seeks to block funds that “may be made available to transfer or deliver, or to facilitate the transfer or delivery of, F-35 aircraft to Turkey” until Congress is satisfied the S-400 deal will not take place.

The bill follows a series of amendments introduced to Congress that have already blocked the transfer to Turkey of equipment related to the F-35s and could lead to sanctions on Turkish officials involved in the S-400 purchase under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Officials from the United States and NATO say the presence of the Russian systems in a NATO-allied country could allow Moscow to access sensitive data on NATO hardware, including the latest generation F-35s.

However, Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have insisted the S-400 purchase is a done deal and will not be cancelled. Vice President Fuat Oktay’s statement on Sunday stressed Turkey’s determination to buy the Russian systems, insisting his country would “never bow to U.S. sanctions”.

In an effort to provide a way out of the impasse last Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance organisation was ready to support and help the two countries to reach an agreement that would allow them to resolve technical issues and expressed concerns about the harm U.S. sanctions could do to the alliance.

But the sanctions could potentially be far more harmful for Turkey, whose lira has been sliding towards crisis levels since last month, and particularly since the contentious decision to rerun the Istanbul mayor’s election was announced on Monday.

The lira fell past 6.20 against the dollar on Thursday, bringing it closer to the record low of near 7 to the dollar it plummeted to last August, during a previous diplomatic crisis with the United States.

Moreover, if Turkey is removed from the F-35 programme, it may have difficulty procuring any fifth-generation aircraft for the foreseeable future.

Turkey’s efforts to build its own new-generation fighter jet suffered a blow in March, when British engine maker Rolls Royce scaled back its operation to build the engine for Turkey’s TF-X programme, reports said in March.

The British manufacturer “all but withdrew” from the programme after the entrance of Turkish-Qatari defence manufacturer BMC, with Rolls Royce concerned that the presence of the firm could pose a risk to its intellectual property, Laura Pitel reported for the Financial Times.