Putin Pitches New Warplane to Erdogan as U.S.-Turkey Ties Strain

(Bloomberg) -- Russia and Turkey said they’ll deepen defense cooperation after President Vladimir Putin showed off his latest stealth fighter jet to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s locked in a dispute with his NATO ally Donald Trump over buying new U.S. warplanes.

Putin told reporters Tuesday that Russia’s ready to “actively discuss” further sales and even joint production of weapons following Turkey’s purchase of an advanced S-400 air-defense system that prompted the dispute with Trump.

“We talked about cooperation on the Su-35” fighter jet and “about possible work even on the new Su-57 plane,” Putin said, after he and Erdogan inspected the cockpit of the fifth-generation warplane at an airshow outside Moscow.

Erdogan said Turkey wants to continue “solidarity in many areas of defense industry” with Russia, including in fighter jets, and “we’ll develop rapidly.” The two leaders also sought to ease a rift over fighting in Syria’s Idlib region.

Erdogan’s visit follows the U.S. decision last month to suspend Turkey’s ability to buy and help build the advanced F-35 stealth warplane in retaliation for defying Trump and taking delivery of the S-400. Putin said shipment of a second S-400 battery began Tuesday. The U.S. says acquiring the system is incompatible with Turkey’s role in NATO and the F-35 program because it may allow Russia to glean information about the fighter’s advanced technology.

Turkey had planned to purchase about 100 F-35s and will have to seek alternatives if the U.S. maintains the ban. After a crisis when Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in 2015, Putin and Erdogan have strengthened economic and military ties as relations between Turkey and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally have strained.

Flanked by their defense ministers, Putin and Erdogan toured the MAKS-2019 international air show that’s a showcase for Russian military technology, viewing displays of the Su-35, helicopters and an amphibious aircraft as well as the Su-57. When Erdogan inquired during the tour whether the Su-57 is available to buy, a smiling Putin replied “You can buy.”

Putin Pitches New Warplane to Erdogan as U.S.-Turkey Ties Strain

Turkey insists it was forced to turn to the Russian air-defense system because NATO partners including the U.S. wouldn’t meet its defensive needs on Turkish terms. The U.S. has repeatedly offered to sell Patriot air-defense missiles to Turkey, but without the technology sharing that the Turkish government says it needs to develop its domestic production capabilities.

Putin and Erdogan attempted to resolve disagreements over a Kremlin-backed offensive by the Syrian army against rebels in the northwestern Idlib region that risks sparking a fresh exodus of refugees to Turkey.

The Syrian military earlier this month broke a cease-fire over Idlib to wage an offensive against a one-time al-Qaeda affiliate in the last major rebel redoubt. Erdogan has called the recent developments a “very serious security threat.”

Putin said they’d reached an understanding on “additional joint measures” to stabilize the situation and “neutralize terrorist centers” in Idlib, without giving details. Russia supports the creation of a security zone on Turkey’s southern border with Syria, which will also help to maintain Syrian territorial integrity, Putin said.

“We can fulfill our responsibilities only if the regime ends its attacks” in Idlib, Erdogan said. The Syrian army’s attacks are forcing Turkey to adopt defensive action, he said.

While Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the Syrian war, they have cooperated in trying to enforce a halt to the fighting. Erdogan will host Russian and Iranian leaders in Ankara on Sept. 16 to discuss ways to hold back the Syrian army. Russia says preserving the cease-fire in Idlib depends on the elimination of thousands of militants.

Turkey has so far refrained from using force against the jihadists despite repeated calls from Moscow, relying on the presence of Turkish troops in Idlib as a deterrent against a large-scale attack on the Sunni Muslim-majority province.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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