WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. edged closer to crisis Friday with NATO ally Turkey, which began receiving components of a Russian-made air defense system in defiance of Trump administration warnings that the deal would mean economic sanctions and no access to America’s most advanced fighter jet.
Despite the warnings, the administration was publicly silent on how it would respond to Turkey’s announcement Friday that it received the first shipment of the S-400 system. After saying it would hold a news conference Friday morning to discuss the issue, the Pentagon later told reporters that it had been postponed “indefinitely.”
The acting secretary of defense, Mark Esper, spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart for 30 minutes, but the Pentagon declined to discuss the call.
Members of Congress, however, were quick to condemn.
“That a NATO ally would choose to side with Russia and Vladimir Putin over the alliance and closer cooperation with the United States is hard to fathom,” the Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a joint statement.
“Turkey and Erdogan must face stiff consequences for this decision,” the joint statement by Reps. Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat, and Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, said, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For months, Washington urged Turkey to buy the American-made Patriot air defense system instead and has insisted that buying from Russia would result in economic and military penalties. Turkey has said it was not offered favorable terms on the Patriot.
Among the U.S. penalties would be cutting Turkey out of the multi-national F-35 production program, depriving the Turks of the sophisticated stealth aircraft and the economic benefit of helping to build them.
The U.S. concern is that the S-400 could be used to gather data on the capabilities of the F-35, and that the information could end up in Russian hands. But more than technology is at stake. Turkey has long been a key to the defense of NATO’s southeastern flank, and some believe its willingness to buy key weaponry from Russia — long identified as NATO’s main adversary — suggests the possibility that its alliance status is in jeopardy.
President Donald Trump recently expressed sympathy toward Turkey’s decision to complete the Russia deal, although Erdogan’s government has been told that the S-400 is incompatible with NATO air defense systems and is seen by alliance officials as a threat to the F-35.
In the Senate, too, Republicans and Democrats alike expressed dismay at the Turks’ move.
“By accepting delivery of the S-400 from Russia, President Erdogan has chosen a perilous partnership with Putin at the expense of Turkey’s security, economic prosperity and the integrity of the NATO alliance,” the top members of the Senate committees on Foreign Relations and Armed Services said in a joint statement.
Putin has long complained that NATO is designed to target Russia. Some see the Russian sale as an attempt to drive a wedge between NATO allies.
In their joint statement, the Senate committee leaders also called the Turkish action “a troubling signal of strategic alignment with Putin’s Russia” and a threat to the F-35 program.
Derek Chollet, a senior defense official in the Obama administration, said Turkey’s decision to begin taking delivery of the S-400 was not a surprise.
“It is a major problem for NATO — at best it will limit Turkey’s role in the alliance, and at worst things could spin out of control,” Chollet said. “Because our shared interests are so compelling I believe Turkey’s place in the alliance will endure, but this will do lasting harm — starting with no F-35s, U.S. sanctions, and broader intelligence concerns.”
U.S. officials have previously warned that sanctions would be imposed under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if Turkey went ahead with the S-400 purchase. Sanctions would mark a new low in the already-tense relations between Turkey and the U.S. Last year the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey over its detention of an American pastor, triggering a Turkish currency crisis.
The prospect of a further rupture in Turkey’s relations with Washington also raises a delicate issue rarely mentioned in public: the status of American nuclear weapons stored at Turkey’s Incirlik air base. Turkey has had a nuclear role in NATO for decades, but this new split is likely to cause some in Washington to question the wisdom of keeping those nuclear bombs at Incirlik. Locations of U.S. nuclear weapons abroad are not publicly acknowledged by the U.S. as a matter of policy.
Turkey has refused to bow to U.S. pressure, insisting that choosing which defense equipment to purchase is a matter of national sovereignty.