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As Trump and Erdogan Meet, Russia’s Putin Looms in Background

Selcan Hacaoglu

(Bloomberg) -- After a phone call and a testy letter, Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both got what they wanted in northern Syria last month. When they meet at the White House on Wednesday, the next critical issue up for discussion might be harder to crack.

Erdogan has relied on his rapport with Trump to ward off another round of punishing American sanctions since he put Turkey’s NATO obligations to one side and took delivery of a missile-defense system made by the bloc’s top foe, Russia.

But time is now running out as Turkey plans to deploy the S-400 batteries as early as December, and make them fully operational by April 2020, while both Trump administration officials and Congress remain publicly determined to punish Ankara over the missile purchase.

“If Turkey doesn’t get rid of the S-400, I mean, there will likely be sanctions,” U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “There’s no place in NATO for significant Russian military purchases. That’s a message that the president will deliver to him very clearly when he’s here in Washington.”

The U.S. has already suspended Turkey from development of the advanced F-35 fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp. over its deal with Russia, and blocked Turkish purchases of the stealthy warplanes.

The S-400 was designed to shoot down U.S. and coalition aircraft at greater ranges and altitudes than older systems. U.S. officials are concerned that sensitive F-35 technology designed to evade such a system could be compromised and used to improve the Russian air-defense system if Turkey had both.

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Tough penalties could destabilize the Turkish economy -- U.S. sanctions imposed in 2018 over the detention of an American pastor helped collapse the lira. And some in Turkey are concerned that with Wednesday’s meeting coinciding with the start of public impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, the president will want to appear tough on Erdogan.

As he was criticized for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies by withdrawing -- at Erdogan’s urging -- U.S. forces from northern Syria ahead of October’s Turkish military offensive, Trump described Turkey as a “big trading partner” and reliable NATO member.

He praised its government for returning Andrew Brunson, the pastor whose detention roiled ties last year, and appeared to raise new doubts about barring the country from the F-35 production line.

As well as constructing key components, Ankara had planned to purchase about 100 F-35s to replace its aging F-16 fleet, with the first two arriving later this year. It also needs to obtain spare parts for all its U.S.-made jets and helicopters. The Turkish military is the second-biggest in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the U.S.

Speaking Tuesday before flying to Washington, Erdogan said he wants to start a “new era over common security issues” with the U.S.

Yet he’s given mixed messages, insisting that the S-400s are already part of Turkey’s arsenal, while suggesting he and Trump might be able to find enough common ground to enable Turkey to add U.S. Patriot batteries to its armory.

The U.S. has sought to sell Patriots to Ankara since at least 2013, but the Obama administration rejected Turkish demands that they come with a transfer of technology so that Turkey could develop and build its own weapons.

Turkey now sees the balance of power shifting away from Europe and the U.S. and envisions itself as a more independent actor in a changing global order, according to two senior Turkish officials who asked not to be named discussing government strategy. Buying the S-400 amounts to a declaration of independence, as one Turkish cabinet minister put it.

President Vladimir Putin is eager to offer Erdogan access to some of Russia’s best military hardware, including Sukhoi fighters, if it helps drive a wedge between NATO and Turkey.

But that’s an option which brings far-reaching consequences for Turkey’s economy and its relationship with the U.S. and other allies, as will be made clear to Erdogan this week.

--With assistance from Tony Capaccio.

To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at, Mark Williams, Bill Faries

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