NATO ally Turkey is not seeking to antagonize the U.S.-led alliance by purchasing Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles and is in talks with France and Italy to buy similar weapons, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Ankara's decision to buy the non-NATO Russian system has been seen in some Western capitals as a snub to the alliance, given tensions with Moscow over Ukraine and Syria, while the deal raised concerns because the weapons cannot be integrated into NATO defenses.
But Stoltenberg said it was a sovereign decision and that he had talked it through with President Tayyip Erdoğan.
"There hasn't been any request from Turkey to integrate the S-400 into the NATO air defense system," Stoltenberg told Reuters in an interview on a Belgian military plane returning from Romania late on Monday.
"I spoke with President Erdoğan when I met him in September. I said that the kind of capabilities different nations want to acquire is a national decision," he said of the S-400 system that Turkey has made an advance payment for and hopes to see delivered in 2019.
Stoltenberg stressed that top Turkish officials and Erdoğan had told him Ankara remained a strong NATO ally.
Stoltenberg said Ankara was ready to brief its NATO allies on the reasons behind its decision to buy the S-400 system.
Erdoğan has blamed NATO countries for what he has called its failing to propose a viable alternative to the long-range Russian missiles, but Stoltenberg said Erdogan was now talking to Paris and Rome for similar systems, a move the alliance chief welcomed.
In September, Erdoğan said Turkey will continue to take its own security measures, dismissing Western concern over the NATO member's agreement to procure an S-400 air missile defense system from Russia.
"They went crazy because we made the S-400 agreement. What were we supposed to do, wait for you? We are taking and will take all our measures on the security front," Erdoğan had said in a meeting with mayors from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Ankara.
The S-400 missile system is Russia's most advanced long-range anti-aircraft missile system and can carry three types of missiles capable of destroying targets including ballistic and cruise missiles. Last year, both China and India signed an intergovernmental agreement for the procurement of four regiments of Russian-made S-400s. Turkey will be the first NATO-member country to purchase the system.
It can track and engage up to 300 targets at the same time and has an altitude ceiling of 27 kilometers.
"He told me that Turkey is in dialogue with France and Italy on possible delivery of air defense systems from them ... on top of the S-400," Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg did not give more details but said Turkey was familiar with the so-called SAMP-T missiles developed because Italy had stationed them in Turkey as part of NATO efforts to help protect Ankara from rocket attacks.
Such weapons are designed to protect battlefields and strategic sites such as airports and seaports against airborne threats, including cruise missiles and aircraft.
The SAMP-T system is produced by Italian-French consortium Eurosam, a joint venture between European missile maker MBDA and Thales.
Russia uses different technology, as well as know-how that Moscow is unlikely to be willing to share, experts say.
"For NATO, the important thing is interoperability," Stoltenberg said, speaking on his return from the launch of a NATO force aimed at deterring Russia in the Black Sea region.
"We encourage, facilitate allies to develop systems, acquire and operate systems together that will reduce costs and strengthen the defense industries within the alliance," he said.
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