Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday seemed to indicate the US was softening its position on congressionally mandated sanctions for Turkey over its purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defense system, stressing that the country should not make the missile defense system “operational.”
“There could be more sanctions to follow but frankly what we’d really like is for the S-400 not to become operational,” Pompeo told Bloomberg Television. “That’s our objective. It’s what we’ve been talking to the Turks about for months and months.”
“They’ve taken delivery of some of the components today and we’re urging them to reconsider that decision,” Pompeo said. He said they’ve “made clear to the Turks that the activation of the S-400 is unacceptable.”
The emphasis on activation rather than acquisition of the S-400 is a move away from the administration’s past messages on the issue. The State Department had repeatedly warned that “Turkey will face very real and very negative consequences if it completes the delivery of the S-400,” as spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said at the end of May.
“This includes suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program, and also, because of CAATSA, exposure to sanctions. These are very serious, these are very real, and I think our position remains quite consistent on that,” she said at a press briefing on May 29.
Pompeo’s comments come as President Donald Trump has indicated that he would prefer not to sanction Turkey over the S-400. He expressed this to Republican lawmakers during a closed door meeting on Tuesday, two Republican sources told CNN. The White House announced last week that it would no longer allow Turkey to participate in the F-35 program due to its purchase of the Russian missile defense system – a move that the US President took reluctantly.
The secretary of state’s remarks on the S-400 also echoed those of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told Defense One on Thursday that he had spoken with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu the day before at the request of the President.
“I’m in the camp of, if they don’t activate the S-400, the sanctions don’t have to be applied. My hope is to persuade Turkey not to active the system because it’s so disruptive to the relationship,” Graham said. “My pitch to Turkey was, let’s stand down on the S-400, let’s start free trade agreement negotiations.”
Lawmakers have said that Trump must act on sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and analysts have indicated there is little room for the President to grant a waiver on the purchase. Last week, CNN reported that administration officials including Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton were pushing to move forward with sanctions, but Trump had been dragging his feet to preserve some sort of a relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a source familiar with internal deliberations at the NSC and State Department.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Nicole Gaouette, Jeremy Diamond and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.