Challenging Western sanctions, NATO ally Turkey has pledged to further its defense industry cooperation with Russia, including fighter jet and aircraft engine technologies, a second batch of S-400 air defense systems, and submarines.
The end of September saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fail to mend ties with the Biden administration, instead turning eastward to strengthen defense industry cooperation.
In an interview with the CBS show Face the Nation, Erdogan said America's refusal to both deliver F-35 fighter jets — which Turkey agreed to purchase — and sell Patriot air defense missiles gave Turkey no choice but to turn to Russia for the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. The acquisition was a point of contention between Turkey and NATO during the Trump administration, and that sentiment has carried over to the new administration.
"In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire, from which country at what level. Nobody can interfere with that. We are the only ones to make such decisions," Erdogan said.
Turkey was kicked out of the U.S.-led, multinational consortium that builds the F-35 Lightening II. Washington also placed sanctions on Ankara in December 2020 via the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The move was the first time the law was used to penalize a U.S. ally.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., pointed out that sanctions were mandated by law for "any entity that does significant business with the Russian military or intelligence sectors."
"Any new purchases by Turkey must mean new sanctions," Menendez said on Twitter.
But Turkey remains defiant. On Sept. 26, Erdogan said his country would consider buying a second batch of S-400 systems from Russia.
"Negotiations [for the second batch] are progressing," a senior procurement official told Defense News. "The level [of talks] is strategic and political at the moment. We have not yet reached technicalities, financing and pricing."
The official added that the engine for Turkey's future fighter, dubbed TF-X, would be the priority when it comes to technological cooperation. The next level of talks will be "exploratory," the official said.
Erdogan went to Sochi, Russia, on Sept. 29 for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We had the opportunity to discuss comprehensively what steps to take in the production of plane engines, what steps to take regarding fighter jets," Erdogan said of the meeting, adding that other measures could include building ships and submarines.
On the flight back, he told reporters that Turkey intends to seek compensation for its removal from the F-35 program, possibly during a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the margins of a Group of 20 meeting in October.
"We made a $1.4 billion payment. What will become of that?" Erdogan said. "We did not — and do not — earn this money easily. Either they will give us our planes or they will give us the money."
Turkey is running a program to co-produce, under German license, six submarines. But Erdogan said the program was not progressing at a desired pace. "We may have to look at alternatives," he said.
The procurement official told Defense News that "Russia can be the know-how source to meet our need for engine technology."
"And not only that; we may soon start talks to acquire Russian fighters as a stopgap solution before our indigenous fighter program matures," the official added.
Turkey has been thriving to design, develop and build its homemade fighter, the TF-X, for the past several years. The program has been crawling despite initial predesign help from Britain's BAE Systems under a $115 million contract.
Turkish Aerospace Industries, the prime contractor for the TF-X effort, has not yet selected an engine that will power the future jet. TAI hopes to fly the TF-X in 2025 or 2026, but industry sources say that target is too optimistic.
Suzan Frazer with The Associated Press contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.