US President Donald Trump declined on Tuesday to criticise Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian missile system opposed by the Pentagon and NATO, saying Ankara was forced into the move by his predecessor Barack Obama.
In his first comments since Turkey began taking delivery of the S-400 system last Friday, Trump said that he understood why Ankara opted to buy the Russian missiles.
“I’ve had a good relationship with President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan,” Trump told journalists.
“It’s a very tough situation that they’re in and it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in … With all of that being said, we’re working through it – we’ll see what happens,” he said without making any mention of sanctions Washington had threatened over the purchase.
Trump called it a “complex situation,” noting that the Pentagon has suspended Turkey from participating in the NATO F-35 fighter jet production programme and from buying planned-for 100 F-35s.
“Because they have a system of missiles that’s made in Russia, they’re now prohibited from buying over 100 planes. I would say that Lockheed isn’t exactly happy. That’s a lot of jobs,” Trump said, referring to the F-35 manufacturer.
Following his meeting with the president of the United States during the G20 summit in Japan last month, the Turkish leader claimed that Trump had assured him that Washington would not impose sanctions on Ankara. But Erdogan’s claims were not confirmed by the US administration.
Trump’s comments appeared to put him at odds with Congress and the Pentagon’s view, that placing the S-400 system alongside the F-35 was a threat to the US and NATO air systems.
“Turkey has been a long-standing and very capable NATO ally, but their decision on the S-400 is the wrong one and it’s disappointing,” Mark Esper, Trump’s nominee as secretary of defence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier on Tuesday.
“Acquisition of the S-400 fundamentally undermines the capability of the F-35 and our ability to maintain that overmatch in the skies,” Esper said.
Esper said he had already told Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar that his policy is, “You can either have the S-400 or the F-35. You cannot have both.”
We have a situation where Turkey is very good with us, very good.
The comments came a day after the Turkish president confirmed the first batch of equipment for the missile defence system was delivered, despite repeated US calls to cancel the deal or face punishment.
On Friday senior Republican and Democratic senators of the armed services and foreign relations committees urged Trump to implement new sanctions on Turkey and directly “terminate” Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme.
“By accepting delivery of the S-400 from Russia, President Erdogan has chosen a perilous partnership with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin at the expense of Turkey’s security, economic prosperity and the integrity of the NATO alliance,” they said in a statement.
But Trump took a softer line as other officials of his administration who had in the past expressed strong opposition to the S-400 deal remained silent.
“We have a situation where Turkey is very good with us, very good,” Trump said, noting Ankara’s release last October of a US Christian pastor held for two years by the government.
“And we are now telling Turkey that because you have really been forced to buy another missile system, we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets.
“And because of the fact he bought a Russian missile, we’re not allowed to sell him billions of dollars worth of aircraft. It’s not a fair situation,” Trump said.
Turkey initially sought in 2009 to buy the US Patriot missile defence system, and a $7.8bn deal was tentatively approved by the Obama administration.
But Washington baulked when Ankara, seeking to boost its own technology base, insisted on Turkey producing some of the system components itself as part of the deal.
Ankara first turned to China and then to Russia for the system.
On Monday Erdogan hailed the first S-400 delivery and said the next step was to jointly produce the system.
“We have begun to receive our S-400s. Some said, ‘they cannot buy them ‘… God willing the final part of this (delivery) will be in April 2020,” Erdogan said.