Turkey Moves Closer to Activating Its Russian Air Defense System

ISTANBUL – Turkey fired a missile on Friday to test its Russian-made air defense system. This was confirmed by a US official. This breaks an agreement with the Trump administration and risks the imposition of sanctions by Congress.

The Turkish military tested the air defense system known as the S-400 in the Black Sea province of Sinop. A Haber TV, a government-affiliated news agency, reported first, and a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, later confirmed it. The video obtained from Reuters showed a plume of white smoke rising high in the sky.

There was no official confirmation from the Turkish government for the start of the test, but neither was there a rejection of the news report. Turkey had seen the missiles move to Sinop and recently issued several notices restricting airspace and waters off the coast to allow testing.

The test launch brings Turkey closer to activating the system, a move that would put further strain on relations with the United States.

A State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the United States had advised Turkish officials at the highest level that the acquisition of Russian military systems such as the S-400 was unacceptable and that such systems should not be made operational.

If this were officially confirmed, Ms. Ortagus said: “We would strongly condemn the launch of the S-400 test missile as incompatible with Turkey’s responsibility as a NATO ally and strategic partner of the United States.”

“We were also aware of the potentially grave consequences of our security relations if Turkey activates the system,” she added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enraged the United States and other NATO allies last year by purchasing the advanced S-400 system. The system aims to counter American F-35 stealth bombers and other advanced Western weapons, and military officials have complained that Turkey’s use of nearby NATO aircraft will jeopardize.

The US government has suspended Turkey from its F-35 program, warning that it could face penalties under a program known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Mr Erdogan has insisted on Turkey’s right to buy the weapons systems as part of a more militarized and assertive foreign policy, and the S-400 system has become an important purchase in its relations with Russia.

However, in recent months, Mr Erdogan has appeared to be more cautious. Under an agreement with the Trump administration, Turkey had kept the missile system under lock and key and had taken no steps to activate it since April.

By moving closer to activating the S-400 system, Mr Erdogan increased his bargaining power with the United States and NATO, but also risked further penalties, said Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“It increases the value of the bargaining chip, but also the size of the risk,” she said. “It’s a kind of Russian roulette.”

Mr Erdogan may reckon President Trump will not win the election and that he will have time to activate the S-400 as it would be months before a new administration takes office and revises its policy towards Turkey, she added added.

Carlotta Gall reported from Istanbul and Eric Schmitt from Washington.