Turkey says it received the first shipments of a Russian missile-defense system whose purchase has long drawn the threat of American sanctions, but the Trump administration stayed largely silent as officials debated the severity of the U.S. response against its NATO ally.
A Russian plane carrying parts for the S-400 batteries landed at an air base near the Turkish capital of Ankara on Friday, Turkey’s top defense board said. The lira fell on the news, which comes after more than a year of rising tensions between Washington and Ankara and domestic political challenges for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Lockheed Martin Corp. The U.S. says the Russian air defense system is designed to shoot down NATO aircraft and can collect critical intelligence that could compromise stealth capabilities of the fifth-generation fighter.
U.S. officials had been anticipating the delivery for weeks, but Trump administration officials still hadn’t responded several hours after Turkey announced it had begun receiving the Russian components. President Donald Trump even delivered a speech at a facility owned by Lockheed in Milwaukee on Friday afternoon without making any mention of the S-400.
Two people familiar with the matter said government agencies including the Defense Department and the State Department were locked in a debate about what to do next.
In an attempt to dissuade Turkey from buying the S-400s, the Pentagon said last month that it was winding down Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program. Turkish manufacturers have been helping to build parts of the jet, and Turkey was set to buy as many as 100 of the fighters. Turkey also faces a slew of potential sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.
While the administration was quiet, there was bipartisan frustration in Congress.
“We urge President Trump to fully implement sanctions as required by law,” the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees said in a joint statement Friday. “Additionally, while all F-35 material deliveries remain indefinitely suspended, we call on the Department of Defense to proceed with the termination of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.”
The disagreement within the administration focuses on how heavily to sanction Turkey under the CAATSA law. One fear is that officials will make a recommendation only to have it rejected by Trump, who expressed sympathy last month for Turkey’s desire for the missile system despite opposition to the deal from his own administration.
The two people, who asked not to be identified discussing an internal debate, said the administration may wait until Monday to settle the issue. At that point, pressure from congressional leaders who oppose the S-400 may be too much to remain silent, they added.
After meeting with Erdogan on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan last month, Trump blamed problems between the countries on his predecessor Barack Obama’s failure to make a deal with Turkey.
Turkey has been adamant that it needs the advanced air defense system and was forced to buy from Russia because NATO allies, including the U.S., wouldn’t meet its defensive needs on Turkish terms.
“They wouldn’t let him buy the missile he wanted to buy, which was the Patriot,” Trump said, saying the Obama administration had treated Erdogan unfairly. The U.S. has repeatedly offered to sell Patriots to Turkey, but hasn’t offered the technology sharing that the Turkish government says it needs to develop its domestic production capabilities.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said talks with the U.S. over the acquisition of Patriot batteries were still underway. “We are surely assessing the purchase of Patriots in line with our need for long-range air and missile defense system, as long as they meet our criteria,” Akar said Friday, according to state-run Anadolu Agency.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday that the U.S. position on the F-35 — that Turkey can’t have both the jet and the Russian missile system — “has not changed.” Esper spoke with Akar in the afternoon, and a Turkish government statement said a U.S. delegation would visit next week to keep discussing the issue.
Trump’s suggestion that he might spare Turkey the worst of the sanctions over the S-400 purchase
helped mitigate the impact on Turkish lira, although other U.S. officials and members of Congress have argued that he has little wiggle room to avoid sanctions under current U.S. legislation. Investors had long priced in risks associated with the missiles’ delivery, the first phase of which started with the Russian plane landing in Ankara, the defense board said.
“Delivery of the parts of the system will continue in the coming days, and it will be used as determined by related authorities when the system is completely ready,” according to Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries.
Russia’s official Tass news agency reported on Friday that the missiles for the S-400 system would be sent by ship, probably late in the summer, citing an unnamed military-diplomatic source. More than 120 guided missiles would be included in the sea shipment, it said.
The relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has deteriorated over the course of the civil war in Syria, where U.S. backing for Kurdish militants has frustrated Turkey, which considers the group an extension of separatists it’s fighting at home. Erdogan has also criticized the U.S. for not extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding a failed coup in 2016. The U.S. says Turkey has failed to provide sufficient evidence against Gulen to persuade a U.S. judge to approve extradition.
— With assistance by Firat Kozok, Travis J Tritten, Daniel Flatley, and Jennifer Jacobs