ISTANBUL - Turkey and the United States are seemingly closer to a collision course as Turkish media report Ankara testing a Russian anti-aircraft weapon system, despite threats of Washington sanctions.
Turkish F-16 jets flew low Monday across the Turkish capital, in a two-day exercise reportedly to test the radar system newly acquired Russian S-400 missile system.
Ankara's purchase of the S-400s is a significant point of tension with Washington, which claims the system poses a threat to NATO's defenses.
"There is room for Turkey to come back to the table. They know that to make this work, they need to either destroy or return or somehow get rid of the S-400," a senior State Department official told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.
The official added that sanctions could follow if Ankara went ahead and activated the system.
Ankara's purchase of the S-400 system violated U.S. Congress's Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Despite September's delivery of the S-400s, Washington appeared to step back, indicating that sanctions would only be imposed if Ankara activated the system.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reiterated Ankara's stance, however, that the S-400 poses no threat to NATO systems.
"That's what we have been saying since the beginning [of the dispute with the [U.S.]. [S-400s] will definitely be a 'stand-alone' system. We are not going to integrate this with the NATO systems in any way. It will operate independently," Akar said Monday.
There is mounting frustration in Ankara with Washington over its stance, given President Barack Obama's failure to sell U.S. Patriot missiles to Turkey.
"Russia has missiles, so do Iraq, Iran, Syria. So why doesn't the U.S. doesn't give us the patriot missile," said Professor Mesut Casin, a Turkish presidential foreign policy adviser.
"Then we buy Russian S-400, and then you say you are the bad guy, you don't obey the regulations, NATO principles, you buy Russian missiles."
Congress called 'anti-Turkish'
Monday's testing of the S-400 radar system is widely seen as a challenge to Washington. Analysts claim it will likely add to calls in Congress to impose CAATSA sanctions and other measures against Turkey.
Sweeping new economic and political sanctions against Turkey are currently in Congress awaiting ratification.
"Congress is somehow has become so anti-Turkish. We have only a few friends remaining in the Congress," said former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende. "It so difficult to understand how they become so anti-Turkish so emotional."
"CAATSA sanctions are waiting, and they are fundamentally important for the Turkish economy," warned Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The Turkish economy is still recovering from a currency crash two years ago, triggered by previous U.S. sanctions.
Ankara will likely be looking to President Donald Trump to blunt any new efforts to impose sanctions against Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen to have built a good relationship with Trump.
Earlier this month, Trump hosted Erdogan in the White House for what he called a "wonderful meeting."
"Turkish relations is so reduced to these two guys [Erdogan and Trump]," said Aydintasbas. "The entire relationship is built on this relationship and will rely on Trump to restrict Congress's authority and make those bills go away."
However, Ankara's test Monday of S-400 components will make it unlikely Washington will end a freeze on the sale of the F-35 jet.
Trump blocked the Turkish sale, over concerns the fighter jet's stealth technology could be compromised by the Russian missile's advanced radar system.
The F-35 sale is set to replace Turkey's aging fleet of F-16s. Ankara is warning it could turn to Russia's SU 35 as an alternative.
"All should be aware that Turkey will have to look for alternatives if F-35s [fighter jets] cannot be acquired for any reason," Akar said.
Role of Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin is courting Erdogan in a move widely seen as attempting to undermine NATO.
The two presidents are closely cooperating in Syria despite backing rival sides in the Syrian civil war. Bilateral trading ties are also deepening primarily around energy.
Analysts point out a large-scale purchase of Russian jets will likely have far-reaching consequences beyond Ankara's S-400 procurement.
Training of Turkish pilots for the SU 35 would be in Moscow, as opposed to decades of U.S. training, while Turkey could find itself excluded from joint air exercises with its NATO partners.
Ankara, too, is warning Washington of severe consequences if it has to turn to Moscow to meet its defense requirements.
"Turkey will buy Russian aircraft if the F-35 freeze is not lifted," said Casin. "If this happens, Turkey will not buy any more U.S. combat aircraft. This will be the end of the Turkish-U.S. relationship. I think like this; I am very serious."
Putin is due to meet Erdogan in Turkey in January, an opportunity the Russian president is expected to use to try and confirm the SU 35 sale.