The US has handed Turkey an end of July ultimatum to scrap its order for Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile defence systems or see its order for the world’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-35, cancelled.
However, the deadline might be seen as convenient for Ankara in that prior to the crucial June 23 Istanbul mayoral election revote—regarded as another referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his handling of Turkey’s hobbled economy and Turks’ human rights—officials on the stump can continue to direct angry, nationalistic rhetoric at Washington over their right to acquire the S-400s, knowing they will still have time for a compromise with the US after the voting is over. On the other hand, Russia has been backing renewed assaults in Syria on Ankara-allied rebels pressed up against Turkey’s border and should Russian President Vladimir Putin get wind of any such compromise not to his liking he could, if he so chose, cause Erdogan a lot of trouble in his backyard.
The Erdogan administration will not want any critical foreign policy issues undermining the brittle Turkish lira ahead of the Istanbul rerun, also seen as a test of what remains of Turkey’s democracy—Erdogan wants to see his party regain the mayorship after the opposition won it two months ago in a shock victory later annulled by election watchdog officials who claimed “irregularities”.
Letter from Shanahan
Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan set out the S-400/F-35 ultimatum to Turkey in a letter addressed to his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar. He made it plain that Nato member Turkey could not have both America's F-35 aircraft and Russia's S-400 missile systems. The US has been saying loud and clear for many months that not only are the Russian systems incompatible with Nato defence systems, they pose a security threat to the F-35 stealth fighter as they could be used to gain sensitive performance data. The Pentagon wants Turkey to buy its Patriot anti-aircraft systems instead.
Turkey has signed up to buying 100 F-35s, and has invested heavily in the F-35 programme, with Turkish companies producing 937 of the plane's parts. Moreover, Turkey has been assigned to run a maintenance depot that would service the F-35s in fleets of other Nato members including the UK.
Shanahan said in his letter that the US was "disappointed" to hear Turkish personnel had been sent to Russia to train how to operate the S-400. Moscow officials said this week that the training had been completed. The head of Russia's state defence conglomerate Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, was quoted as saying on June 7 that S-400 deliveries to Turkey would begin in "about two months".
"Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400," Shanahan wrote. "You still have the option to change course on the S-400."
Backing up the letter, US Under Secretary of Defence Ellen Lord told reporters: "We do not want to have the F-35 in close proximity to the S-400 over a period of time because of the ability to understand the profile of the F-35 on that particular piece of equipment."
The first four F-35s due to be delivered to Turkey have still not left the US.
Erdogan reiterated on June 4 that Turkey remained "determined" to proceed with the S-400 acquisition, which his officials have repeatedly described as a “done deal”.
"Unfortunately we haven't received a positive proposal from the American side on the subject of Patriots like the S-400s from Russia," Erdogan said.