How did Trump respond to Erdoğan’s calls on S-400s?
A much-anticipated phone conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and United States President Donald Trump took place late afternoon on April 29. The two men’s talk came after successive meetings between senior military and civilian officials throughout April.
Eyes were on this specific conversation as many high-level Turkish officials have been pointing out the importance of the special dialogue between the two leaders as the most efficient avenue for the resolution of the S-400 problem.
The Turkish officials have been expressing two important expectations from the U.S. leadership: The use of a presidential waiver so that Turkey would be exempted from the congressional sanctions for the deployment of the S-400s. The second was about the formation of a joint technical working committee to find out whether the deployment of Russia’s sophisticated air defense systems would jeopardize the flight safety of fifth generation F-35 aircraft.
A readout issued by the Turkish presidency has outlined that “President Erdoğan also brought forward the proposal to form a working group concerning the procurement of the S-400 defense systems from the Russian Federation.”
The White House confirmed that the two presidents had discussed Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian system. A senior administration official was quoted by Reuters as saying: “We have been clear and consistent in emphasizing our grave concerns on the S-400 acquisition with representatives of the Turkish government on numerous occasions and at the highest levels.”
The statement by the U.S. official did not include a reference to Erdoğan’s proposal for setting up a technical committee on the matter. In fact, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu first brought forward this proposal to his counterpart Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in early April, but it was not endorsed by the U.S. top diplomat.
Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın, at a press conference two weeks ago, had also said a technical committee under the NATO umbrella would be useful in narrowing differences between Turkey and the U.S. over technical impacts of the deployment of the S-400s for the safety of the F-35s and other NATO military equipment.
However, the messages Erdoğan conveyed in his address to an international defense industry fair on April 30 were far from signaling progress. Erdoğan reiterated once again that the U.S. had its dragged feet in supplying air defense systems to Turkey when they had an urgent need, a move he described as an attempt to limit Turkey’s right to self-defense.
Erdoğan described threats from the U.S. to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program if it deploys S-400s as another unfair imposition on an allied country. He vowed that the entire program would collapse should Turkey be left out of the production.
The Turkish president’s earlier conversations with Trump had not cited any problem with regard to Turkey’s continued partnership in the project as the U.S. president had always sounded positive on that very matter.
It’s, of course, difficult to guess how the conversation went between the two men, but Erdoğan’s reaction on April 30 brought about concerns over how this very complicated matter would be resolved before the U.S. resorts to sanctions.