US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the US will not sell Turkey advanced F-35 fighter jets because Ankara bought the powerful Russian surface-to-air system. But Trump signaled a reluctance to punish Turkey with major sanctions over its acquisition.
“It’s a very tough situation that they’re in. And it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in the United States,” Trump told reporters during a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
“With all of that being said, we’re working through it. We’ll see what happens, but it’s not really fair.”
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier on Tuesday, Trump‘s nominee to become the next secretary of defence, Mark Esper, described the move by the NATO partner as “disappointing”.
“They have been a long-standing and very capable NATO ally, but their decision on the S-400 is the wrong one,” Esper said.
The comments came a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the first batch of equipment for the missile defence system was delivered from Russia, despite repeated US calls to cancel the deal or face punishment.
Erdogan said he envisioned the S-400s to be operational by April 2020 and the next step was joint production of the defence system with Russia.
‘Cannot have both’
Washington had tried for months to prevent Turkey’s acquisition of S-400s – which can hit targets as far as 400km away – arguing they are incompatible with NATO systems.
It also said if the S-400s were deployed near US-made F-35 jets, which Turkey has ordered and is helping to produce, they would undermine the stealth fighters’ defences.
“The policy that I have communicated to my counterpart … is that you can either have the S-400 or you can have the F-35. You cannot have both,” Esper said.
“Acquisition of the S-400 fundamentally undermines the capabilities of the F-35 and our ability to retain that over-match in the skies going forward,” he added.
Turkey has repeatedly said the S-400 is a strategic defence requirement, acquired mainly to secure its southern borders with Syria and Iraq, and when it made the deal with Moscow for the equipment, the US and Europe failed to present a viable alternative.
‘Forced to buy’
Erdogan has previously said he did not believe Washington would impose sanctions over the issue since the two countries are “strategic allies”.
Trump again appeared to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to sell the US’ best alternative to the Russian S-400s – Patriot missiles. He said Turkey was “forced to buy another missile system”.
“Because of the fact that [Turkey] bought a Russian missile, we’re not allowed to sell them billions of dollars’ worth of aircraft. It’s not a fair situation,” Trump said, lamenting the jobs that would be lost.
The ongoing dispute between the countries with the two largest armies in NATO marks a deep division in the Western military alliance, which was forged after World War II to counter Moscow’s military power.
Investors in Turkey have been unsettled by the deal and the prospect of sanctions, a year after a dispute with Washington over the trial of a US pastor in Turkey contributed to a financial crisis that drove Turkey’s economy into recession.