By Selcan Hacaoglu
As U.S. and European allies form a diplomatic front against Russia, Turkey’s coziness with the Kremlin is testing its crucial defense ties with the U.S. and its military alliance with NATO.
The U.S., Canada and several European nations expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats on Monday to punish President Vladimir Putin’s government for the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K. Turkey, which has grown closer to Russia in recent years, stayed out of the fray, saying its foreign policy is based on interests of the Turkish nation and the state.
“At the moment, there is a positive and good relationship between Turkey and Russia,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said late Monday. “Turkey isn’t considering taking any decisions against Russia.
U.S. officials called the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, an attack on America’s closest ally and a reckless attempt to murder a British citizen on British soil. One official said more than 100 people were affected by the attack, which the U.K. government has said employed a class of nerve agent manufactured by the Soviet Union called “Novichok.”
Yet Turkey isn’t alone in its decision to avoid rebuking Russia. Half of the EU’s member nations have not expelled Russian officials over the March 4 attack. Israel, too, has taken no punitive action despite its close ties with Washington.
Turkey’s ties with fellow NATO members have been strained in recent years, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pursuing a more assertive and independent foreign policy as conflict engulfed neighboring Iraq and Syria. Relations with the European Union have soured over the bloc’s perception that Turkey has taken an increasingly autocratic turn. Friction with Washington has flared over U.S. support for Kurdish militants in Syria whom Turkey considers terrorists.
Turkey says the U.S. has created obstacles to its purchase of American Patriot missile defense systems, and instead, has decided to buy S-400 missile defense batteries from Russia.
“If the U.S. is willing to give Patriot defense systems, Turkey is ready to buy,” Bozdag said.
The U.S. Congress may condition the planned sale of F-35 warplanes to Turkey on Ankara’s scrapping the S-400 deal with Russia, Hurriyet newspaper reported citing lawmaker Volkan Bozkir, who headed a Turkish parliamentary delegation to Washington last week. Turkey has ordered 100 F-35s in a deal that would have Turkish companies play a role in their production and maintenance.
“Senators did not tell us this, but when we spoke to their advisers this was the message that emerged,” Hurriyet quoted Bozkir, a member of the ruling AK Party, as saying.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli on Tuesday denied any link between Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles and American jets. “Turkey joined the F-35 project years ago and deliveries will start from next year,” he said.
“First of all this is a commercial activity, agreements have been made and Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities under those agreements,” Canikli said. “We’ve made payments and all sides will fulfill their responsibilities.”