Turkey’s president defiant about acquiring Russian missile defense system

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in an exclusive interview with CBS News this week that his government intends to defy the U.S. and go ahead with the purchase of another Russian-made anti-aircraft missile defense system, despite repeated warnings that it puts the security of the NATO alliance at risk.

Erdogan confirmed his plans to CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan after she asked him about Russian government claims that Turkey would purchase more S-400 systems.

“I explained everything to President Biden,” Erdogan said in an interview taped Tuesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, claiming that America’s refusal to sell Turkey the U.S.-made Patriots system as an alternative had led his government to purchase the Russian system instead. The U.S. has disputed this claim. 

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have maintained that the Russian S-400 system is a danger if activated in the same country that flies F-35 jets. The US government has said the S-400 would collect detailed information about the F-35s, possibly erasing their stealth advantages. Turkey had previously bought F-35 jets, which gave the NATO member a role in their production. But in retaliation for Turkey’s S-400 purchase, the Trump administration halted its delivery of the F-35s, dropped Turkey from the program, and imposed sanctions on Turkish defense officials.

Despite this, Erdogan has remained defiant. 

“So it sounds like you still intend to buy another round of these S-400s, of these Russian missile systems?” Brennan asked. “So the sanctions will stay on?”

“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 responded. 

“That sounds like a yes.” Brennan said.

“Of course, of course, yes.” Erdogan said. He later confirmed that he plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of the month. The two are expected to discuss a number of issues, including Syria. During the interview, Erdogan also told CBS News that he would prefer that the U.S. pull out its remaining 900 troops in neighboring Syria. Turkey’s forces have remained in the northern part of the country since its military incursion to fight U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, after Trump attempted to withdraw all U.S. troops in the fall of 2019.

This is just one of many irritants in the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, which remains a key power in the Middle East and a NATO member. As a presidential candidate, Biden told The New York Times’ editorial board in January 2020 that Erdogan was “an autocrat,” and cited his expansive powers and abuse of power. Erdogan seemed to brush off the criticism.

“Mr. President’s definition of an autocrat remains unknown to me, I don’t know what he meant,” Erdogan told Brennan. He also said that President Biden has never raised any concern about human rights abuse issues to him during their personal conversations. National Security Council Spokeswoman Emily Horne did not return CBS News’ request for comment.

As per the Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ 2020 worldwide ranking index, Turkey is the second worst jailer of journalists — second only to China — and worse than Iran and Saudi Arabia. Erdogan’s government also arrested and charged some 36,000 people in Turkey whom it accused of criticizing him or being connected to figures it believes were responsible for the attempted coup to overthrow him in 2016.

President Biden last met with Erdogan in Brussels this past June. At the time, it appeared there might be an opportunity for a breakthrough in the troubled relationship. Erdogan told CBS News that it was Biden who asked him to consider having Turkish forces run the airport in Kabul in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. It was a key opportunity, and Erdogan said he was open to the idea on the condition of logistical and financial support.

“It’s including financial and equipment support, the ammunitions, the vehicles and the weapons there would have been transferred to us. But such things have unfolded that the exact opposite happened,” Erdogan said.

The U.S. withdrawal and the chaotic way it was carried out left NATO troops scrambling as well. Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, also pulled out of the country.

“The artillery, the ammunition, the weapons and the vehicles at the Karzai airport were all transferred over to the Taliban, and the Taliban is currently using all those weapons and all those vehicles, and we have to see all these facts for what they are,” he said. 

Since the Taliban has seized control of Afghanistan, both Qatar and Turkey have offered to provide technical support to their emerging government in order to keep their airports operating. That provided Turkey with the chance to be a power broker and essentially provide the Taliban with a lifeline to the rest of the world. Erdogan said that at this point, there is no deal to work with the Taliban.

In an interview that will air on Sunday’s “Face the Nation”, Erdogan laid out what he described as his requirements to do business with the Taliban.