US, Turkey play chicken over Russia

US, Turkey play chicken over Russia

The U.S. and Turkey are playing a high-stakes game of chicken over Turkey's plan to buy a missile defense system from Russia.

Turkey is insisting on plans to go forward with the purchase, even as the Trump administration threatens to cut off sales of the American-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Ankara if it does so.

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The administration has also threatened to impose sanctions on its NATO ally if it goes through with the Moscow deal. Washington wants Ankara to instead buy the U.S.-developed Patriot air and missile defense system, but talks have yet to yield a concrete agreement.

It's not clear which side will blink first in a fight that has enormous diplomatic stakes for all three countries, to say nothing of the millions of dollars in potential sales for U.S. defense contractors. Turkey plans to eventually buy at least 100 of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 Lightning II fighters.

Turkey and Russia this week appeared to move closer toward the S-400 missile defense system sale, with the head of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport saying Moscow plans to start delivering the missile system in July.

“Everything has been already discussed and agreed,” Alexander Mikheev told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy on Friday said his country doesn’t intend to give up its purchase of the S-400 or U.S. talks to possibly acquire the Patriot systems.

“We have no intention of claiming that we will not purchase the Patriot systems. The same goes for the S-400 issue,” he told reporters, according to the Russian government news agency Tass. 

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U.S. defense officials fear that Turkey’s use of the S-400, which is not compatible with other NATO systems, will allow Russia to gather closely guarded information on the F-35.

Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, said this month that Washington has been sending mixed messages.

“Different statements are coming from different institutions of the United States,” Çavuşoğlu said in Washington on April 3. “Different and contradictory statements are coming.”

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE, meanwhile, “maintains his confidence” that Turkey will choose the American missile system and drop the Russian arms purchase, a spokesman said.

“This is an ongoing negotiation,” Shanahan spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino told The Hill on Friday.

Another Pentagon spokesman said it is the Defense Department’s “sincere hope Turkey will choose to abandon the S-400, defend Turkish skies with a NATO-interoperable system, and safeguard their investment in the F-35 program.”

“We continue discussions with Turkey on acquisition of the PATRIOT system, which remains a robust, NATO-interoperable alternative to the S-400 for its national defense requirements,” spokesman Eric Pahon said in a statement to The Hill. “We have worked with Turkey through good times and bad as a NATO ally for nearly 70 years and have every intention of maintaining that relationship.”

The Trump administration has been ramping up pressure on Turkish officials to abandon the S-400, and earlier this month froze delivery of F-35 equipment to Turkey over the dispute while threatening to remove the country as a partner in the aircraft’s multi-nation program.

As the administration seeks to find a solution, Congress is poised to join the discussion. Lawmakers plan to use the annual defense policy bill to ensure Turkey does not end up possessing both the U.S. aircraft and Russian system.

Several congressional staffers told The Hill they expect more than one amendment to be offered during debate over the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to prevent dual ownership.

“There is widespread and bipartisan understanding that the F-35 and S-400 cannot coexist,” House Foreign Affairs Committee member Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerBolton returns to political group after exiting administration Overnight Defense: Trump ousts Bolton in shocker | Fallout, reaction from GOP senators | Senate spending talks in chaos | Dems eye vote to nix Trump border emergency The Hill's 12:30 Report: Bolton out as national security adviser MORE (R-Ill.), told The Hill.

“I don’t really think there is any room for debate or maneuver, and this shouldn’t be a surprise to the Turks,” he said. “I think most see buying an air defense from our main adversary as a red line for our newest and best fighter.”

Congress got involved last year when it attached an amendment to the 2019 NDAA to pause sales of F-35s to Turkey pending a new assessment on U.S.-Turkey relations.

Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35, has yet to say how it would deal with Turkish companies being removed from the program’s industrial base if it comes to that. 

The NATO ally is also expected to play a significant role in sustaining the fighter further down the road.

“I suppose the [joint program office] will have to figure out how they manage what aircraft they buy, at what point in time as countries look at their procurement decisions or as things change among some of the partners that we have,” Lockheed Chief Executive Marillyn Hewson said in an earnings call Tuesday.