The purchase underscored President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing willingness to coordinate with Russia and risked a new crisis in relations between Turkey and the United States. Although U.S. law mandates sanctions against countries making “significant” deals with the Russian defense industry, the Trump administration has given mixed signals about how exactly it might respond if Turkey went through with the purchase.
A basket of measures listed under legislation passed in 2017 — from which the administration is required to select at least five — includes economic sanctions, revocation of visas and prohibition of all Turkish procurement of U.S. defense equipment.
The State Department and the Pentagon have warned of dire additional repercussions, including canceling the delivery of at least 100 U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets purchased by Turkey, as well as ending participation of the Turkish defense industry in producing components for the aircraft.
The breach would not only strike a heavy blow to Turkish manufacturers but could also affect negotiations with the United States over Syria.
President Trump has been publicly supportive of Erdogan and last month expressed sympathy for the Turkish leader’s decision to purchase the S-400s. Erdogan, after meeting with Trump at the Group of 20 summit in June, said he did not believe that the United States would sanction Turkey.
The law allows the president to delay the sanctions, provided he certifies to Congress every 180 days that Turkey is “substantially reducing” its dealings with Russia.
But any hesitancy on Trump’s part is likely to meet stiff bipartisan resistance and a possible legal challenge.
“By accepting delivery of the S-400 from Russia, President Erdogan has chosen a perilous partnership with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin at the expense of Turkey’s security, economic prosperity and the integrity of the NATO alliance,” leaders of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees said in a statement.
“We urge President Trump to fully implement sanctions as required by the law” and “call on the Department of Defense to proceed with the termination of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program,” the statement said. Congress tied the S-400 purchase and the F-35 program together in last year’s Defense Department appropriations authorization, and the Pentagon has said Turkey must decide between the two.
In a brief comment, acting defense secretary Mark Esper said: “We are aware of Turkey taking delivery of the S-400, our position regarding the F-35 has not changed, and I will speak with my Turkish counterpart . . . this afternoon. So there will be more to follow.” Several hours later, the Pentagon said a scheduled briefing on the issue had been postponed “indefinitely.”
The White House also said it was aware of the delivery but made no comment on its plans. A senior administration official noted, in an authorized statement released on the condition of anonymity, that Trump had said at the G-20 that the issue was “a problem, there’s no question about it.”
The delivery of the Russian system came two days after Ambassador David M. Satterfield, Washington’s incoming envoy to Turkey, arrived to take up his post in Ankara.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that three Russian planes arrived Friday and that the “process will continue in the coming days,” according to a Defense Ministry statement. Turkey’s discussions with the United States over the possible purchase of the Patriot missile system, the U.S.-made equivalent of the S-400, were continuing, he added, calling the Patriot system a “long-range air and missile defense system that we need.”
The Turkish statement did not say which S-400 components had been delivered, or when or where the completed system would be ultimately deployed. Senate aides monitoring the administration’s reaction said it was not clear what components would trigger the sanctions.
In remarks to reporters after his June meeting with Erdogan, Trump largely echoed the Turkish leader’s talking points, saying that Turkey “was not treated fairly” by the Obama administration, which “said no, no, no to Turkey when they wanted to purchase Patriots.”
But Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that was “not true” and recalled that he had hand-delivered a Pentagon letter to Turkey’s foreign minister in 2012 “which specifically offered the sale” of Patriots.
Despite the president’s comments, White House officials have emphasized that the current administration’s policy has been largely the same as the Obama administration’s. Both offered the sale but would not meet Turkey’s terms on price, or its demands that the deal include technology that would ultimately allow Turkey to build its own air defense system. The officials, who have been negotiating with Turkey for the past two years, have said they believed they improved the terms but essentially offered the same deal.
Turkish officials have repeatedly labeled those terms insufficient, said the $3.5 billion price tag was too high and warned that the United States was becoming an unreliable partner. Russia, which has moved rapidly to expand its defense sales, especially in areas where it believes it is competitive with the United States, quickly jumped into the breach with an offer for quick delivery at two-thirds the cost, although reportedly without the desired technology transfer.
“This is the first time that Russia has installed military hardware of such sophistication in a NATO country,” said Marc Pierini, a former European Union ambassador to Turkey and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “The history of the relationship between Russia and Turkey is rather agitated and often hostile. But the current honeymoon is characterized by opportunities gained on both sides. Russia is making a move against NATO, and Turkey is making a move to restore prestige.”
U.S. sanctions on Turkey are “pretty much guaranteed,” he said. “But this is not so much about the sanctions but about Turkey being excluded from the F-35 program. This will open up new opportunities for Russia as well — they’ll be able to sell their Sukhoi Su-57 equivalent. This will become a huge problem for NATO because the trust will be lost. But this is essentially what Russia is looking for — the erosion of that trust.”
A NATO official said Friday that while it was up to “allies to decide what military equipment they buy,” the alliance was “concerned about the potential consequences of Turkey’s decision to acquire the S-400 system. Interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions.”
U.S. officials have fretted that Turkey’s possession of the S-400 could give Russia access to secrets of the F-35’s stealth technology. Last month, the Pentagon said it would halt the training of Turkish pilots to fly the warplane and would not deliver several of the aircraft that had already been signed over to Turkey.
Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed that the first shipment of the components needed for the S-400 missile systems was delivered to Turkey on Friday, Russian media reported, citing a statement. The remaining elements will be delivered to Turkey later, the ministry statement said, “in strict accordance with the terms of the contract concluded with the Turkish side.”
Some in the Russian government praised Ankara’s decision to acquire the S-400 systems despite the pressure from the United States and NATO.
“They came under unprecedented pressure but nevertheless prioritized their national security,” senior Russian lawmaker Franz Klintsevich said of Turkish leaders, according to the Interfax news agency. “They acted absolutely correctly.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow. Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.