ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan said Washington was not right to propose that Ankara get rid of the Russian S-400 missile defences it purchased, calling it an infringement of sovereign rights, according to Turkish media.
In a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump urged Erdogan to abandon the S-400 systems that began arriving in Turkey in July despite threats of sanctions from Washington.
Asked after his meeting whether Turkey would consider not activating the S-400s, Erdogan told reporters Ankara cannot harm its relations with Russia. He also again held out the option of buying U.S. Patriot defences.
“We said, ‘We see the proposal to remove the S-400s completely while buying the Patriots as an infringement of our sovereign right and certainly do not find it right,’” he was quoted as saying by broadcasters.
“This is the most binding element: we have some strategic efforts with Russia,” Erdogan said, adding the Turkstream natural gas pipeline, which begins in Russia and runs through Turkey, will start delivering gas to Europe.
“I cannot abandon the S-400s because of Patriots now. If you are going to give us Patriots, give them,” he was quoted as saying.
Largely thanks to good relations between the two presidents, Turkey has so far avoided U.S. sanctions that by law should be triggered by the S-400s. But the United States has banned sales of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara and removed it from a multinational program to produce the warplane.
Erdogan said that he saw a much more positive approach to the F-35 issue from Trump.
In contrast with the warm welcome Erdogan received from Trump, five Republican senators in a meeting on Wednesday questioned his motives for buying Russian weapons.
“Senators made it clear to Erdogan that while they want to remain an ally of Turkey, Ankara cannot just purchase these Russian missile systems and expect nothing to happen as a consequence,” said a congressional source who was briefed on the meeting.
The main target of the meeting was to discuss Ankara’s purchase of Russian weapons. But the session stretched on for more than an hour and included a discussion of Syria, the source said, adding Trump gave the senator free rein to ask questions after making some remarks to start the meeting.
Erdogan showed a video on an Ipad during the meeting, detailing the hostilities of the Kurdish militia. Erdogan said Trump looked “moved” while watching the footage.
The U.S. Congress has been united in its anger against Turkey, which has deepened following Ankara’s Oct. 9 offensive into Syria to drive out the Kurdish militia, Washington’s main partner in the fight against Islamic State.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favour of a non-binding resolution recognising as genocide the century old killings of 1.5 million Armenians, angering Ankara. But on Wednesday, Lindsay Graham, a Trump ally and an outspoken critic of Turkey who was also at the meeting, blocked the resolution on Senate floor.
“My objection would not be to sugar coat history or try to rewrite it,” Graham said on the floor. “I do hope that Turkey and Armenia can come together and deal with this problem,” he said, adding that he just met with Erdogan and Trump.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Ezgi Erkoyun and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and David Gregorio