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Is Russia’s planned missile sale to Turkey the real deal?

Though some critics claim Turkey has no serious intention of buying defense systems from Russia, some military experts say the proposal is definitely feasible.
Russian S-400 Triumph/SA-21 Growler medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems drive during the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe on Saturday with a military parade, showcasing new military hardware at a time when relations with the West have hit lows not seen since the Cold War. REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS D

Ankara and Moscow resolved many of their trade issues last week but are still haggling over the price of Russian S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile systems, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said at a news conference May 10.

During a May 3 meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the presidents of both countries discussed weapons, the sanctions Russia imposed in 2015 after Ankara shot down one of its military jets, Turkish tariffs, construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the first Turkish nuclear power plant, which is being developed in Akkuyu. Both also said they support the creation of safe zones in Syria.

After the meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a joint news conference: "Turkey is an important and promising partner of Russia. Some time ago, the durability of our bilateral relations, as we know, was tested. Now, we can state confidently that the recovery period in Russia-Turkey ties is over, and we are returning to normal cooperation between partners.”

Russia has agreed to lift all sanctions on Turkish imports, except for its ban on tomatoes. Russia used to be Turkey’s largest export market for tomatoes, and the subject is sensitive. However, Putin said Russia has moved on, investing in production at great expense, and now grows its own.

Nevertheless, Ankara promised to lift the restrictions on Russian grain imports imposed in March. According to Russian state-run news agency Sputnik, Russia will be able to supply as much as 300,000 tons of grain to Turkey until the season is over at the end of June. As a sign of its readiness to move forward with this matter, Ankara lifted the embargo the next day.

The most anticipated part of the talks was the discussion of Turkey’s potential purchase of the S-400. Negotiations have been underway since August. Turkey says it wants the system for defense until it can develop its own.

Critics of the deal insist it is an illusion, the main argument being that Turkey’s NATO partners will oppose the deal and that Turkish authorities might just be looking to use the threat of the deal as leverage on other issues. Or, perhaps Turkey plans to play sellers against each other to get a better price on other countries’ systems.

However, Russian military experts Al-Monitor spoke with think the deal is real and could benefit both states.

Russia’s RBK business media, referencing a Kremlin source, reports that Moscow asked $500 million for each S-400 unit; Turkey is allegedly interested in four.

Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Eksport Vooruzheniy (Arms Export), told RBK that in 2007 Russia sold two S-300 units to Iran for $900 million, so $500 million apiece for the S-400s seems plausible. 

Frolov told Al-Monitor, "I think it is a real deal, but it will take a lot of time to reach a final decision.” Even so, he thinks there’s no downside for Russia, as the S-400 is not new. According to Frolov, if a deal is reached, the deliveries will start in 2019-2020.

Maxim Shapovalenko, a Moscow-based defense expert, also views the S-400 deal as viable. "This step will bring benefits for both states. Turkey will show its NATO allies that it is a state with its own independent position, a state that pursues its national interests first of all. For the Russian side, the deal is very important economically” and would give Russia the chance to broaden its military significance geographically, he told Al-Monitor.

Nikolai Litovkin, defense editor at the state-run Russia Beyond the Headlines, is more skeptical. "NATO disapproves of this deal and will use all possible methods to disrupt it,” he said. 

Both countries seem to have overcome their animosity over the 2015 jet incident and are open to broadening bilateral ties.

"The normalization of relations is very important both for Russia and Turkey, which are the biggest powers in Black Sea region,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council (Russia’s Senate), told Al-Monitor. He thinks good relations will help both states find common ground in trade, military cooperation, and the Ukrainian and Syrian crises. However, he also added: "That doesn't mean that we have overcome all misunderstandings and difficulties in our bilateral relations. But it is not catastrophic; it is a normal state of relations between two different countries.”

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