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Where U.S.-Turkey relations stand after dispute over purchase of Russian missiles

The White House announced Wednesday that the U.S. will not sell billions of dollars of next-generation fighter planes to Turkey, after the NATO ally purchased advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles. Amna Nawaz talks to Admiral James Stavridis, who served as NATO's top military officer from 2009 to 2013, about what these latest developments mean for U.S.-Turkey relations that were already tense.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House announced today that the U.S. wouldn't sell billions of dollars worth of next-generation fighter planes to Turkey. The reason? Ankara's decision to buy advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Triumph in Turkey's capital last week for a president who had just secured a critical deal, a massive missile defense system, not from a NATO ally, but from the country that alliance was founded to counter, Russia.

  • Recep Tayyip ErdoganĀ (through translator):

    They told us, you can't buy them, you can't station them, it wouldn't be right to buy them. God willing, we will finalize the process in April 2020. Now our goal is co-producing with Russia. We will do this. We will go even further.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Planes carrying parts for the S-400 missile defense system began arriving in Turkey on Friday, part of a $2 billion deal. The S-400 can intercept ballistic missiles up to 38 miles away and shoot down aircraft up to 150 miles away, aircraft like the U.S. F-35 fighter jet.

    Two years ago, Turkey announced it would buy the S-400 system from Russia because the U.S. had stalled in selling Turkey the American system, called Patriot.

    At a Cabinet meeting yesterday, President Trump blamed the Obama administration for giving Turkey no other option.

  • President Donald Trump:

    And because of the fact he bought a Russian missile, we're not allowed to sell him billions of dollars worth of aircraft. It's not a fair situation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Congress had passed legislation to exclude Turkey from an F-35 training program. And, today, the Pentagon confirmed the U.S. wouldn't sell the fighter jet to Turkey.

    U.S. officials fear the Russian S-400 system could learn too much about the F-35's capabilities if both were in Turkish hands.

  • Ellen Lord:

    Turkey cannot field a Russian intelligence collection platform in proximity to where the F-35 program makes repairs and houses the F-35.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO ally, has been dealt another blow. The two had already been at odds for years. The U.S. had refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who Erdogan blames for an attempted coup in 2016.

    And U.S. support for the YPG, a Northeast Syrian Kurdish group that Turkey considers a terrorist organization, inflamed the tensions.

  • Steven Cook:

    This is a relationship that has been on the skids for a number of years, and mistrust and distrust are what now characterize it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steven Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the S-400 shipment also comes at a difficult time for Erdogan. He faces a weak Turkish economy and a recent loss of the important Istanbul mayor's election to the opposition.

    Erdogan's deal with Russia also puts at risk Turkey's credentials as a NATO member.

  • Steven Cook:

    Well, there's no mechanism to remove a country from NATO, but there are measures that the alliance can take to isolate, for lack of a better term, an alliance member. And this is something that NATO officials have warned Turkey about, that, if they went forward with the S-400, they wouldn't be privy to certain meetings within NATO, they wouldn't be part of certain training missions and certain planning.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Erdogan has insisted it was his country's sovereign right to buy the missile defense system. Cook says, Erdogan is trying to assert his ability to stand alone.

  • Steven Cook:

    Turkish officials have been very, very clear that this purchase reflects Turkey's independence, that Turkey is capable of pursuing its own foreign policy, independent of the wishes of the United States and other great powers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what kind of damage has been done to U.S.-Turkey relations and within the larger NATO alliance?

    To answer those questions and more, I'm joined by Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander, NATO's top military officer. He assumed that command in 2009 and retired in 2013.

    Admiral Stavridis, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, as you just heard, the U.S. has said to Turkey, back out of that S-400 deal, or else. NATO officers have issued a similar sort of warning.

    Where does that leave Turkey? What happens now?

  • James Stavridis:

    I would say that, on a scale, Amna, that kind of runs from both sides shrug, say, eh, we were just kidding, this is no big deal, and, at the other end of the spectrum, Turkey pulls out of NATO, neither of those are going to happen.

    We're kind of in the middle. The next step is withholding their participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program. That's a big deal for President Erdogan. I think it will cause him to hit pause and consider whether there is some way we can map out a compromise between these very difficult positions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can any of these steps, though, pressure from NATO, the U.S. sanctions, anything else, would any of those potentially force Erdogan to back out of that deal?

  • James Stavridis:

    I think it's highly unlikely.

    I have met with now President Erdogan. He was Prime Minister Erdogan while I was the NATO commander. I met with him. I know very well the minister of defense, who, at the time, was chief of defense, the senior military officer, Generally Hulusi. He's now the chief of defense.

    They are very dug in at this point. And here's an important point. For President Erdogan, this is a pride point, not only for him personally, but, as he sees it, for the way Turkey is viewed in the international recommend.

    This is going to be a hard one to find compromise upon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is an important point of clarification I want to make.

    I interviewed President Erdogan last year. I asked him about the S-400 deal. And he said, look, we tried to buy the same technology from the U.S. We were refused.

    We have now heard President Trump echo that same narrative. Is that exactly what happened?

  • James Stavridis:

    No. As usual, there is shades of gray in all these conversations.

    From my perspective, it is unclear that the Turks were actually told, no, you can't buy the Patriot missile.

    Certainly, the U.S. has reversed course under the Trump administration and made that offer very explicitly. I would say, if President Erdogan were here right now, he would say the offer of the Patriot is too little, too late.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Admiral, help us understand the position President Erdogan is in right now, though.

    Back in 2016, he survived a coup attempt, but he's now facing a weak economy. He's suffered some political losses at home. What is it right now that's forcing him — or pushing him, rather, to strengthen that relationship with Russia?

  • James Stavridis:

    First and foremost, he sees this issue, the U.S. support for Kurdish allies in Syria, pulling us apart.

    Secondly, he continues to be frustrated, as do many senior Turkish leaders, about their feelings that the European Union has rejected Turkey's membership over a decade and more. And they feel the United States has not done enough to put pressure on the European Union to accept Turkey.

    And then, third and finally, President Erdogan has found a new friend, if you will, in Vladimir Putin, who tends to reinforce some of Erdogan's authoritarian impulses.

    When you put all three of those things together, you can see Turkey drifting away from the alliance.

    The key here, Amna, is, what should the United States be doing at this point? And I would say it is in our geopolitical interests to try and find a compromise here with Turkey, to work with our European allies, to do this in the context of NATO.

    It would be a geopolitical mistake of near epic proportion to allow Turkey to kind of drift out of the alliance over this issue. We really need to work hard to find compromise here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Epic proportion, you say.

    We have just got a minute left here.

    We have had some analysts look at this and say we're approaching the zero hour when it comes to the alliance between U.S. and Turkey. What is at stake here if that alliance doesn't hold?

  • James Stavridis:

    We have never seen a nation — we now have 29 nations in NATO. We have never seen a nation pull out of NATO. It would fundamentally weaken the alliance.

    And, secondly, Turkey is an important, growing state. By mid-century, Turkey will have a larger population than Russia does. It is a long-term — not a bridge between East and West. Turkey is a center of power unto itself. We need to hold them in the alliance. We need to hold them with the West.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Admiral James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO, thank you for your time.

  • James Stavridis:

    Thanks, Amna.

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