Turkey’s insistence on buying a missile system from Russia is striking a note of disunity as the Nato alliance prepares to mark its 70th anniversary in Washington.
Foreign ministers from the 29-member western alliance are hoping to show a tough, united, front over a resurgent Russia as they meet for two days in the US capital.
But the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, declared in Washington that there was no turning back on buying Russia’s S-400 missile defence system – two days after the US suspended the Nato ally’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet programme.
“The S-400 deal is done and we will not step back from this,” he told a thinktank forum as part of the Nato festivities.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has seen his Islamist-rooted government increasingly clashing with the west as it cracks down on dissent at home and threatens to strike US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.
But Çavuşoğlu said Turkey still backed Nato on core concerns with Russia and would never recognise Moscow’s 2014 takeover of Crimea from Ukraine. “We have been working with Russia,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that we are undermining the alliance and we agree with Russia on everything. There is no shift on our foreign policy.”
Çavuşoğlu added that Turkey had turned to Russia as it could not buy US Patriot missiles, and quoted the president, Donald Trump, as saying, in an unspecified phone call, that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had made a “mistake” in not selling the system to Ankara.
But the foreign minister went on to criticise Trump on Syria. Asked if he understood US policy on the war-torn country, he replied bluntly: “No, and this is the problem.”
Çavuşoğlu said he understood Trump would keep 200 troops in Syria after pledging to pull all US forces out following a phone call with Erdoğan in December.
“It is better that all the countries get out of Syria for the stability and territorial integrity of the country,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Nato has also faced growing friction due to Trump, who has openly questioned the value of defending small members such as Montenegro and criticised allies, notably Germany, for not spending more on defence.
The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, appeared to soothe Trump during a White House meeting on Tuesday, crediting the US leader’s tough rhetoric with pushing the Europeans and Canada to bolster their defence budgets by $100 bn between 2016 and 2020.
In an address to the US Congress on Wednesday, Stoltenberg enjoyed repeated standing ovations as he hailed the value of Nato.
“Nato has been good for Europe, but Nato has also been good for the United States,” he said. “The strength of a nation is not only measured by its economy or the number of its soldiers, but also by the number of its friends. And through Nato, the United States has more friends and allies than any other power.”
Stoltenberg said the alliance needed to invest in greater capabilities, including missile defence and surveillance drones as Russia increasingly showed its clout. “We do not want a new arms race. We do not want a new cold war. But we must not be naive,” Stoltenberg said.
He said to brace for the end of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, after the US said it was exiting due to Russia missiles it claimed were in violation of the signature cold war accord.
“We do not want to isolate Russia. We strive for better relationship with Russia,” Stoltenberg said. “But even with a better relationship we still need to manage a difficult one.”