Will Trump and Erdoğan hit on S-400 solution in Japan?

All eyes will be on the outcome of Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidential chat in Japan on Saturday as the NATO allies aim to resolve the high stakes dispute surrounding Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian missile defence system. 

“The Trump administration is threatening a major break with Turkey, blacklisting the NATO ally from access to America’s next-generation F-35 fighter jet if Ankara follows through on plans to buy an advanced S-400 missile system from Russia,” the Washington Times said on Wednesday. 

U.S. officials say the S-400 is incompatible with its defence systems and a threat to the F-35, and have repeatedly warned Turkey of sanctions, as well as expulsion from the F-35 programme. For their part, Turkish officials have vowed again and again that the S-400 purchase is a done deal and that they expected delivery to begin in the next few weeks. 

Trump’s planned talk with Erdoğan during the G-20 summit in Osaka may be overshadowed by his meetings with the Chinese and Russian leaders, “but it could be a major turning point in U.S.-Turkish relations,” said the Times. 

On Thursday, Erdoğan made a not-so-subtle threat. “If the U.S. doesn’t deliver F-35s, we will go to international arbitration” to force Washington to refund the $1.25 billion Turkey has paid for the stealth fighter jets, he told Japanese newspaper Nikkei. 

Erdoğan said derailing the process and using a language of threats was unhelpful, but that he believed the S-400 issue would be resolved this weekend. “Regarding the S-400s, Mr. Trump knows Turkey's concerns, why we needed this system and how we came to this point very well,” Erdoğan said. 

It may be too late for Turkey to back down from the S-400 deal. Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms firm has received payment, manufactured all the hardware and trained Turkish military personnel to operate the system, according to Interfax news. 

The S-400 is far from the only trouble spot between Ankara and Washington. In Syria, the U.S. military supports Kurdish militia that Turkey views as terrorists. The United States has refused to extradite Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara says masterminded the failed 2016 coup. A U.S. federal court has filed charges against state-owned Halkbank for evading sanctions on Iran, while new U.S. sanctions placed on Iran this year have barred Turkey from accepting its regular oil shipments from Iran. 

Ömer Taşpınar, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, believes Turkey’s S-400 deal will be paradigm-shifting, as it shows the two countries’ militaries no longer see each other as partners. 

It’s a case of sleeping with the enemy, as the U.S. has allied with Kurdish militia and protected Gülen, Turkey’s sworn enemies, while Ankara has partnered with Putin’s Russia, the nemesis of NATO.  

“Both are actively engaged in working against each other,” Taşpınar wrote in an analysis for Brookings’ website. “It is one thing to see things differently, but partnering with each other’s rivals has clearly created a radical mental shift in the way the two militaries contemplate each other.”

Some observers say Erdoğan is buying the S-400 in order to smooth tense relations with Moscow after the Turkish military shot down a Russian Su-24 plane in 2015 and an off-duty Turkish police officer assassinated Russia’s ambassador the following year. 

“The S-400 contract was the price Turkey had to pay to put behind the downing of the Su-24, the murder of the ambassador and thus restore its cooperation with Moscow,” former Turkish ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Canada and Greece, Ali Tuygan, wrote on his blog, Diplomatic Opinion.