ASPEN, Colorado — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday sought to downplay the disagreement between Turkey and NATO over Ankara’s decision to purchase a Russian-made missile defense system, insisting that the fracture does not suggest Turkey is turning away from the west and towards Russia.
“No,” Stoltenberg said flatly, speaking at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “This is a serious issue, it’s about the S-400 and the F-35, but Turkey’s contributions to NATO and NATO’s cooperation with Turkey runs much deeper than the F-35.” Turkey is a “key ally” in the fight against ISIS, for example, Stoltenberg said, as well as a parter in NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
“I’m not underestimating the difficulty related to the S-400 but I’m saying that Turkey as a NATO member is much more than S-400,” he said.
The Trump administration is poised to boot Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program after Turkey took possession of Russian-made S-400 missile interceptors that the United States says could compromise the expensive stealth fighter jet. The decision to purchase the Russian system—which has been the subject of fierce diplomatic conversations in recent months—has raised the spectre of an irreparable fracture between the western alliance and Turkey’s increasingly autocratic government.
Turkey will remain part of NATO’s integrated air and missile defense system, Stoltenberg said, although the S-400 will not be integrated into that broader system. “Turkey can still be part with other capabilities,” he said. “They have planes, they have radars, they have other capabilities which are important for our air and missile defense.” But the S-400 is “not possible to integrate into the integrated NATO air defense and missile system, which is about sharing radar picture, about joint air policing, which is about shared capabilities.” Turkey “has not asked for that,” he noted.
Some analysts have argued that such a broad fracture with Turkey would be detrimental to U.S. national security—in particular, the United States operates an airbase and houses nuclear weapons in Incirlik—while other commentators have argued Turkey should be booted out of the alliance. (There is no formal mechanism for ejecting a country from NATO.)
Stoltenberg on Wednesday said no ally had raised the suggestion of pushing Turkey out of the alliance. “Turkey is an important NATO member and no ally has raised that issue at all because we all see we are dependent on each other,” he said.
Still, the secretary general expressed concerns about the Turkish purchase of the system, reiterating that the F-35 and the S-400 are not interoperable.
“I am concerned about the consequences of the S-400 decision because it means Turkey won’t be involved in the F-35 program,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s not good. It’s bad for all of us. It’s a consequence of that decision and therefore I welcome the ongoing dialogue between” the United States and Turkey on the issue. “Of course, we tried to avoid and end the situation where we are now, where two allies so fundamentally disagree.”