Erdogan Considers Russian Fighter Jets in Snub to Trump

Erdogan Considers Russian Fighter Jets in Snub to Trump
Source: Bloomberg
By Selcan Hacaoglu and Henry Meyer

As he takes delivery of a second air-defense system from Russia in a purchase that’s already caused a serious rift with President Donald Trump’s administration, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doubling down by considering a bid for warplanes from his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin.

It’s a move that may have far-reaching consequences for Turkey’s economy and its relationship with the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. But after being locked out of the U.S. program for advanced F-35 fighter jets as punishment for buying the Russian S-400 system, Erdogan is shopping around for options.

Putin may be only too willing to oblige if it helps drive a wedge between NATO and Turkey, the alliance’s second-biggest military after the U.S. Luring Ankara into Moscow’s embrace would be a stunning diplomatic triumph that may justify offering Erdogan access to some of Russia’s best military hardware.

Putin told Erdogan with a smile that “you can buy” Russia’s latest Su-57 stealth fighter after the two leaders inspected the jet Tuesday at an aviation show outside Moscow. When Turkish reporters asked Erdogan whether the fifth generation fighter may be an alternative to the F-35, he replied “Why not? We did not travel to Moscow for nothing.”

Russian and Turkish defense officials began discussions on possible sale and joint production of warplanes after the meeting. Erdogan said he’ll wait until the U.S. makes its final decision on Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 program. It’s currently barred from buying or helping to build the aircraft and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday ruled out any compromise.

“It’s either the F-35 or the S-400. It’s not both,” Esper told reporters in Washington. “It’s not park one in the garage and roll the other one out. It’s one or the other.”

Security Risk

Trump expressed personal sympathy with Erdogan’s “tough situation” last month over the Russian missile purchase, even as his officials have moved to punish Turkey. He spoke with Erdogan by phone on Wednesday, after the Turkish president’s return from Russia.

While the turn toward Moscow for jets may be an elaborate bluff to ratchet up pressure on the U.S. to change its stance, Erdogan isn’t backing down so far. Turkey had planned to purchase about 100 F-35s. The U.S. regards Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 as a security risk that could enable Russia to gain vital data about the aircraft’s stealth technology.

Members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee this week urged Trump to place further sanctions on Turkey for buying the S-400. Turkey took delivery of the first S-400 in July and Russia began shipment of a second missile-defense battery this week.

Turkey isn’t moving away from the West, “but it is being pushed away at the expense of the security and integrity of NATO,” Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, said in a Bloomberg article in July. “Our Western friends and allies need to treat Turkey as an equal partner and address its security concerns in a serious manner.”

Turkey 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.

‘Changing World Order’

If “U.S. sanctions pressure escalates, then Russo-Turkish ties could strengthen, including in the defense sphere,” said Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin-founded think tank. A Turkish tilt away from the West “backs up Russia’s view of the changing world order,” he said.

While Trump is holding off so far on sanctions against Turkey required by law over the missile-defense purchase, an escalation of tensions may pose a risk to the Turkish economy. When the U.S. sanctioned Turkey last year over the arrest of an American preacher, the collapse in the value of the Turkish lira hastened the country’s first recession in a decade.

For Turkey, developing its own missile-defense system to complement the S-400 is a bigger priority than acquiring the F-35, though it needs to replace its aging U.S.-built F-16 warplanes while it strives to develop its own jets, said the senior Turkish officials. If the U.S. won’t supply F-35s, Turkey will seek a partner willing to sell fighter aircraft and help build Turkey’s next warplane, they said.

Turkey made a similar argument to justify its purchase of the S-400, saying it turned to Russia because NATO partners wouldn’t meet its defensive needs on Turkish terms. The U.S. repeatedly offered to sell Patriot air-defense missiles to Turkey, but without the technology sharing the Turkish government says it needs to develop its domestic production capabilities.

The S-400 deal includes a partial technology transfer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in June. It’s a purely commercial issue and there are “no military or political considerations,” Putin said after talks with Erdogan last year.

The Su-57 is still in testing phase, so Turkey’s quickest option to replace the U.S. fighter would be Russia’s Su-35 jets, said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a defense-industry consultancy.

The jet that’s been sold to China for about $100 million per plane in recent years, and was shown to Erdogan by Putin at the air show, “is the best that Russia has currently in its inventory,” said Pukhov, who sits on the Russian Defense Ministry’s advisory board.