President Biden, in a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit on Sunday, expressed “concerns” about Turkey’s acquisition of a sophisticated Russian-made air defense system, the White House said.
The Biden-Erdogan sit-down came amid rising tensions with the U.S. ally over threats to expel diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and Ankara’s possession of the Russian S-400 missile system.
After the meeting, which lasted for roughly an hour, the White House said in a statement that Biden “underscored his desire to maintain constructive relations, expand areas of cooperation, and manage our disagreements effectively.”
In addition to his concerns about Turkey acquiring the Russian defense system, Biden “also emphasized the importance of strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and the rule of law for peace and prosperity” with Erdogan, the White House said.
In a brief photo opportunity ahead of the meeting, Biden declined to comment on the substance of his sit-down, telling reporters: “We’re planning to have a good conversation.”
A senior administration official who previewed the meeting to reporters on Saturday said the threats and the weapons systems would be discussed, in addition to issues related to Syria and Libya. Turkey’s desire to acquire American-made F16s will also be discussed, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate diplomatic conversations.
Erdogan recently threatened to expel 10 ambassadors, including from the United States, France, Canada and the Netherlands, because their embassies signed a letter calling for the release of Osman Kavala, a philanthropist and civil society activist. Erdogan backed off the threat after the embassies released statements committing not to interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs.
The U.S. official said that if Erdogan had followed through, the bilateral meeting would have been in jeopardy. “I’m not actually even sure we would have had the meeting if he had gone ahead and expelled,” the official said.
“Certainly, the president will indicate that we need to find a way to avoid crises like that one going forward,” the official said about the threat. “Precipitous action is not going to benefit the U.S.-Turkey partnership and alliance.”
Erdogan said last week that he expected to meet Biden on the sidelines of the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, rather than Rome, and that he would discuss issues related to Turkey’s suspension from the international program that builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet.
The United States removed Turkey from the program in 2019, after Ankara purchased the Russian air defense system, known as the S-400. Turkey has said it is owed $1.4 billion it paid for F-35s it was later blocked from buying.
Despite the recent tension, Biden and Erdogan were seen speaking several times Saturday. The two men chatted as leaders posed for the “family photo” of G-20 principals. Then they were seen huddling with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just before the opening session of the summit.
Biden also had a “brief” meeting Saturday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the administration official said. It was an “opportunity” for Biden to speak with Scholz, who is trying to form a government and step in as Merkel’s successor.