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Hopes Rise on Averting Turkish-US Crisis Over Russian Missiles

FILE - Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems are shown after their deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk, near Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019.

Turkey's currency surged Thursday on rising speculation a looming crisis could be averted between Ankara and Washington. The revived optimism follows a telephone conversation between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Wednesday call came as Washington threatens to impose sanctions on its NATO ally over Ankara's procurement of the Russian S-400 missile system.

Washington says the missiles threaten to compromise NATO defense systems, especially the United States' latest F-35 fighter jets. In talks with Trump, Erdogan sought to allay such concerns.

"The [Turkish] President has reiterated an earlier offer for the formation of a joint working group on Turkey's plan to procure the S-400 defense system from the Russian Federation," tweeted Fahrettin Altun, Turkey's presidential communications director.

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, May 6, 2019.
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, May 6, 2019.

Ankara insists steps can be taken to ensure the S-400 doesn't compromise NATO security. U.S. officials have been skeptical of such claims, but both presidents appear committed to dialogue.

Judd Deere, deputy White House press secretary, wrote that the telephone conversation touched on "Turkey's planned purchase of the S-400 missile defense system, and the opportunity to continue the discussion during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, next month."

"Some Ankara sources suggest the [Turkish] administration still counts on Trump bailing it out, even if Congress were to impose sanctions," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, a business management consulting firm.

Erdogan is widely seen in Turkey as having forged a close relationship with Trump, even as Turkish-U.S. relations deteriorate.

Observers point out that while Trump frequently sharply criticizes Western allies, he rarely publicly attacks Erdogan, despite growing differences between the countries.

In a move widely seen as a gesture by Erdogan to Trump, U.S.-Turkish citizen Serkan Golge was released from prison Wednesday in the middle of the night, following the presidential telephone call.

Serkan Golge
Serkan Golge

Golge, a NASA scientist, has been detained for nearly three years, accused of involvement in the failed coup of 2016. Washington has been pressing for Golge's release, insisting the charges were baseless.

Clock ticking

With the S-400 missiles set to be delivered as early as next month, however, time could be running out for a solution. "Turkey will face very real and very negative consequences, if it completes the delivery of the [Russian] S-400" anti-missile defense system, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.

Ortagus went on to explain that the missile sale most likely would trigger the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which prohibits significant Russian defense purchases.

The threat of U.S. sanctions has been weighing heavily on the Turkish financial markets. "Turkey's dwindling FX [foreign currency] reserves means it has little ability to defend the currency. Sooner or later, investors may question their ability to recover loans, [and] the trigger could be a crisis with the U.S. over the S-400," said a Turkish global financial analyst, speaking anonymously.

Some analysts suggest Erdogan could be playing for time by seeking to postpone any potential crisis and the ensuing financial turmoil until after the June 23 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election.

The election is widely seen as pivotal to Erdogan after his AKP Party suffered a shock defeat in the Istanbul March vote. Turkey's electoral board controversially ordered the new vote, because some officials were deemed ineligible to administer the poll.

FILE - President Donald Trump, left, talks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they tour the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.
FILE - President Donald Trump, left, talks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they tour the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.

Erdogan might be calculating that any measures against Turkey over the S-400 would be delayed until the G-20 meeting, set for June 28-29.

In another move some say is intended to buy time, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar this week said the S-400s "may not be delivered in June, but they will arrive in the following month."

Moscow shot back, "The delivery will be carried out earlier than originally planned, at the request of the Turkish side," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday in Kazakhstan's capital, Nursultan. July was the initial delivery date for the missiles.

Relationship with Russia

The S-400 deal is widely seen not only as being symbolic of deepening cooperation between Moscow and Ankara, but also of Turkey's distrust of its Western allies, born out of the failed 2016 coup.

"The choice of a Russian system, it's a political gesture of the Turkish administration to Russia," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University, "because Russia was among the first countries to support Ankara during the attempted coup. And there are still circles in the [Turkish] government and the president who believe the failed coup was American-engineered."

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin sees the S-400 missile sale as a strategic opportunity to pry Turkey away from Western partners," said a Russian analyst speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But Putin only gives a 50-50 chance the S-400 deal will be concluded," the analyst added. "It's unlikely there will be any major repercussions between the countries if Erdogan cancels. For Putin, energy cooperation is more important."

Turkey is set to be a key transit route for Russian gas, and major pipelines are being constructed there, along with a Russian-built nuclear power station.

Ankara insists there is no turning back on the S-400 missile purchase, but analysts suggest Erdogan most likely will continue to perform a careful diplomatic balancing act, at the least avoiding any showdown with Washington until the key Istanbul vote.