State Dep’t: Turkey Must ‘Destroy, Return or Somehow Get Rid of’ Russian Missile Defense System

Patrick Goodenough | November 22, 2019 | 4:25am EST
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S-400 components are unloaded from a Russian military cargo plane at an airbase near Ankara in July. (Photo: Defense Ministry, Turkey)
S-400 components are unloaded from a Russian military cargo plane at an airbase near Ankara in July. (Photo: Defense Ministry, Turkey)

( – With Turkey showing no sign of backing down on its purchase of a Russian-made missile defense system, a senior State Department official said Thursday the Turks know what they have to do to avoid further consequences for their action – “either destroy, return, or somehow get rid of the S-400” batteries.

Briefing on background, the official told reporters that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent White House visit provided an opportunity for President Trump to underline that “receipt of the S-400 is not acceptable, and it’s going to put you at risk for sanctions.”

Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and others had already made that point to the Turks, before his visit to the White House, Erdogan had essentially been saying that he wanted to hear it directly from Trump, the official said.

“Well, he did.”

As a NATO ally, Turkey’s $2.5 billion agreement to buy the Russian system troubled the U.S. and other members of the transatlantic alliance who say the S-400 is incompatible with NATO systems.

In an attempt to defuse the issue, the Pentagon offered late last year to sell Turkey Patriot missile defense systems as an alternative to the Russian ones. Turkey has not taken up the offer, although it has not been withdrawn.

Erdogan’s defiance on the issue has already had consequences; Trump last July ended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 joint strike fighter program.

U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate during his nomination hearing that month that the S-400 was “built to shoot down aircraft like the F-35,” and that Turkey having the S-400 “could provide the Russian military sensitive information on the F-35.”

Beyond its removal from the F-35 program, Ankara could also face sanctions, under the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which targets significant financial transactions with Russia’s military sector.

The State Department official said Thursday that there was still “room for Turkey to come back to the table.”

“They know that to make this work they need to either destroy, return, or somehow get rid of the S-400,” the official said.

“At the same time, we certainly have not closed the door on their ability to acquire the Patriot battery, which does address their air defense needs.”

Turkey has given no indication of a willingness to change course, however. On Thursday, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told the Turkish parliament that the S-400 batteries which arrived over the summer will be activated as soon as the personnel who will operate them complete their training.

Earlier this week, Erdogan told a meeting of lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party that he had told Trump during their Nov. 13 meeting that if the dispute over the F-35s is not resolved, Turkey would have to “look elsewhere” to meet its defense needs.

Turkish officials indicated last month negotiations were underway for a potential deal to purchase Russian Sukhoi Su-35 jets. Such an agreement would only increase calls in the U.S. Congress for CAATSA sanctions to be imposed against Ankara.

Speaking more generally about governments that may be mulling significant purchases of Russian weaponry, the State Department official said countries should not think that because they have good relations with Washington that would exempt them from CAATSA sanctions.

“There is no blanket waiver for CAATSA, nor is there a blanket application,” the official explained. “And I say that because there are states who’ll say, ‘Well, we’re good, right, because we have a tight relationship, so you’re not going to CAATSA us.’ It’s like, hold on.”

Asked whether the administration had any confidence that Turkey would agree to give up on the S-400, the official did not answer directly, but suggested that Erdogan may come under pressure from the military to change direction.

The official observed that Erdogan’s “world view doesn’t always exactly align with” that of Turkish military officers.

The official recalled that, before the Russian components began to arrive, “there were Turkish officials that were very concerned about that decision.”

“There were Turkish officials that had expressed concern that they were about to put themselves at risk of being pushed out of the F-35 program and were very concerned that there would be other direct effects yet to be realized,” the official said.


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