Turkish defence minister holds first talks with U.S. counterpart

(This story has been updated with the Pentagon readout on the call)

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar held talks with his U.S. counterpart Lloyd James Austin on Thursday.

The officials “exchanged views regarding regional security and bilateral defense cooperation” including the “significance of strategic relations”, the Turkish Defence Ministry said in a statement.

U.S. Department of Defence has issued its own readout on the call hours later and said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III underscored “commitment to the U.S.-Turkish bilateral defense relationship and collective security through NATO”.

The talks come after Turkey took charge of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in January. NATO members decided to create the VJTF in 2014 in response to a changed security environment, including Russia’s destabilisation of Ukraine and turmoil in the Middle East. 

Akar had met with Ukrainian Land Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Syrskyi on March 23, during the commander's visit to Ankara, according to a statement released by the ministry. Syrskyi's Turkish counterpart Ümit Dündar was present at the meeting as well.

According to the Pentagon release, Secretary Austin also “highlighted cooperation among Allies and partners in the Black Sea, including recent exercises that included the USS Monterey and USS Thomas Hudner and Turkish naval assets. Secretary Austin and Minster Akar discussed the instability along NATO’s Eastern and Southern Flanks, including challenges posed by Russia”.

The Turkish readout also added that both ministers agreed on “solving pending issues based on the spirit of strategic partnership and spirit of Alliance”.

Relations between the two NATO allies have been strained for some time over a range of bilateral issues, including Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems.

In February, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said deployment of the missiles was inconsistent with NATO membership. 

Pentagon said in its own readout that, “Secretary Austin noted the importance of working to strengthen U.S-Turkey military-to-military cooperation, and urged Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 missile defense system.”

The S-400s were not mentioned in Turkish readout.

The United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defence industry over the S-400 purchase under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in December. Imposing sanctions on Turkey does not comply with the spirit of alliance, Turkey's defense minister said in response.

The new administration under U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to re-engage Turkey over the issue.  But Ankara has repeatedly refused to give up the missiles.

Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that the S-400s were “a done deal”.

Akar recently proposed finding a solution to the crisis on the basis of a similar compromised reached with Greece over the purchase of an earlier version of the missiles from Russia in the 1990s. So far, the S-400s still appear to be the biggest military and political issue between the two countries. 

Pentagon, in its longer readout than Ankara's, said, “The two leaders also discussed the positive diplomatic developments and efforts to reduce all tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Secretary welcomed ongoing exploratory talks between NATO Allies Turkey and Greece and the commitment of both governments to this process.”

Turkish readout also said Akar “congratulated Secretary Austin again on his appointment as the Secretary of Defence”.

Akar, in February during an interview with the Turkish media stated that despite his congratulatory message to Austin for his appointment, he had not gotten any response.