Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have pushed for the purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems instead of American Patriot missiles due to concerns that the country's air force may pose a significant threat in itself, Reuters reported, citing several anonymous sources in the US government. The officials believe that the participation of part of the Turkish Air Force in the failed 2016 military coup could have influenced the president's decision.
One official suggested that Ankara fears that the US-made defence systems might fail to down NATO jets such as the F-16, operated by Turkey, due to "friendly fire" safeguards embedded in them. At the same time, Russian air defences would not have such a problem, but rather the opposite, another official noted, saying that "the S-400 system was designed to counter NATO aircraft".
“A Turkish bureaucrat said the primary threat to the government remained from Turkey’s own air force, which operated NATO aircraft and had attacked government installations and attempted to assassinate President Erdogan during the July 2016 coup attempt", one of the anonymous sources told Reuters.
Anonymous Turkish officials, interviewed by Reuters in light of this report, rejected the US officials' suggestions, saying that the country does not have any such concerns, but that the key reason for choosing the S-400 was instead the Barack Obama administration's reluctance to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey.
"Turkey is not worried about another coup attempt and it trusts its own army and pilots", another Turkish official said.
Erdogan himself explained his choice in favour of Russian air defence systems by the fact that Moscow had made a better offer, one that allegedly satisfied Ankara's desire for a technology transfer to sustain the missile system. Notably, the S-400 might also appear more lucrative for its ability to shoot down both enemy missiles and aircraft, while the Patriot systems are only focused on countering enemy missiles.
The first S-400 shipments began to arrive in Turkey roughly on the third anniversary of the failed 2016 coup in Turkey. The US pressured Ankara hard to abandon the deal with Moscow, threatening to suspend the supplies of F-35 jets. Washington claims that the S-400s pose a threat to the American fifth-generation aircraft, as they could reveal the F-35's weaknesses to Russia.
Turkey has slammed the US decision to remove Ankara from the F-35 programme as not being in alignment with the "alliance spirit" and having zero "legitimate foundations". Ankara also warned that the move could negatively affect the strategic ties between the two NATO allies.
During the botched 2016 military coup in Turkey, the country’s air force played an important part, transporting rebel forces with helicopters and using jets to bomb the parliament building. President Erdogan, who was in a hotel on the south-western Turkish coast at the time, barely escaped capture, returning to the capital by plane. Sources later reported that the plane was targeted by rebel F-16s, but was spared after Erdogan's pilot allegedly managed to convince them that the jet was a regular Turkish Airlines flight.
Following the coup's failure, Erdogan accused US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, a strong critic of the Turkish president, of orchestrating it and has repeatedly criticised the US for refusing to extradite him to face prosecution. The latter has resulted in tensions between the two states in recent years.