Turkey to send Russian S-400 experts home in goodwill gesture to U.S.

Turkey will send home military experts from Russia assisting in the operation of the S-400s in a goodwill gesture to the United States, which remains at odds with Ankara over the defence system.

The announcement came from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Monday during his visit to Greece.

In response to a question from state-run TRT television, Çavuşoğlu said that Russian experts would not remain in Turkey and that the S-400 will be under complete Turkish control.

“The S-400s will be under our 100 percent control. We’ve sent many technicians for training. The Russian military experts won’t stay in Turkey,” Çavuşoğlu said in Athens.

This decision marks an important signal that Turkey is interested in making some compromises with Washington on a key disagreement, less than two weeks before the leaders of both countries meet.

The foreign minister said that though the Russian experts would be sent back to Russia, Turkey would not give up on the S-400 after an acquisition process that cost Ankara close to $2 billion in 2017.

“It is not possible to accept calls from another country to “not use” them,” he said.

This move does not fully end the dispute over the S-400 however. Under the terms of its agreement with Russia, Turkey is slated to acquire four battalions of S-400 batteries but Washington has pushed Turkey to end all future deliveries of the system.

On June 14, United States President Joe Biden and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit scheduled for that date.

Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 in July 2019 caused a serious rupture in relations with its largest ally. Washington responded by booting the Turkish Air Force out of the F-35 joint strike fighter programme and ended the participation of Turkish firms in the industrial production of parts for the jet. Prior to its expulsion, the Turkish military planned to acquire 120 F-35s.

The United States fears that Russian technicians would be able to use the S-400 to gather intelligence on the F-35 by operating alongside it within a NATO member-state.

In December 2020, the outgoing Trump administration levied sanctions against Turkish defence industry officials and its main procurement agency after the first operational test of the S-400 in October 2020. Prior to this test, a tacit agreement between Washington and Ankara existed where the sanctions would be avoided if the S-400 remained in storage.

Erdoğan and his government have aggressively defended the purchase from Russia as a matter of national sovereignty. Ankara reacted predictably poorly after the sanctions were issued last year, but it has held onto the prospect of reaching a middle ground with the Biden administration that would see sanctions lifted but the S-400 retained.

Çavuşoğlu reflected this position in his remarks on Monday.

Çavuşoğlu on Monday also said that he expected to meet U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington or Ankara in the near future, stopping short of providing a date.

Çavuşoğlu noted the date still needed to be agreed on by both sides.