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U.S. blocks Turkey from F-35 program despite Trump's reservations

Trump and Erdogan at a 2018 NATO summit. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The U.S. has formally announced the removal of NATO ally Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program. The move came after Turkey purchased a Russian S-400 air defense system over vocal objections from Washington.

The big picture: Wednesday's announcement is about military hardware. But it’s also a manifestation of the widening divide between Turkey, the U.S. and NATO. While this breaking point long loomed on the horizon, both U.S. and Turkish officials hoped it could be avoided.

  • Turkey is now banned from buying an aircraft that, until now, it helped build.
  • It’s also receiving a Russian system that was designed to shoot down advanced aircraft, and could gather valuable intelligence on the F-35 and its weaknesses.

Between the lines: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long been warned that the Russian missile system was incompatible with NATO’s security. But he has used the issue to fan Turkish nationalism and hedge his geopolitical bets, while apparently believing he could avoid any harsh consequences.

  • Senior Turkish officials recently told Bloomberg that Turkey was “too vital to U.S. security interests, and too important to Europe as a potential gateway to millions of refugees, for the West to risk forcing a complete break.”
  • Pentagon officials briefing reporters Wednesday attempted to separate this issue from questions about the broader alliance, which is under severe strain. Erdogan is both warming to Russia and increasingly willing to provoke the U.S.
  • President Trump stressed his “very good relationship” with Erdogan on Tuesday, and said he was reluctant to take this step because it would cost “a lot of jobs” and was “not really fair” to Turkey.

Reality check: While Trump repeated Erdogan's claim that Turkey only bought Russian missiles because the Obama administration didn't give it any alternative, that's not the case. The U.S. repeatedly offered to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, but negotiations fell apart when the U.S. refused to share sensitive technology.

What to watch: The S-400 decision also exposes Turkey to potential U.S. sanctions. Trump is the "wildcard" in such discussions, Foreign Policy reports, in part because of Erdogan's influence with the U.S. president.