Russia calls U.S. ‘adversary,’ rejects NATO call to end Ukraine build-up

By Robin Emmott and Andrew Osborn

BRUSSELS/MOSCOW (Reuters) -The United States called on Russia to halt a military build-up on Ukraine’s border on Tuesday as Moscow, in words recalling the Cold War, said its “adversary” should keep U.S. warships well away from annexed Crimea.

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fighting has escalated in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

Two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week.

In Brussels for talks with NATO leaders and Ukraine’s foreign minister, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington stood firmly behind Ukraine.

He also said he would discuss Kyiv’s ambitions to one day join NATO – although France and Germany have long worried that bringing the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonize Russia.

“The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Tuesday.

Ryabkov’s remarks suggest that the diplomatic niceties which the former Cold War enemies have generally sought to observe in recent decades is fraying, and that Russia would robustly push back against what it regards as unacceptable U.S. interference in its sphere of influence.

“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good,” Ryabkov said, calling the U.S. deployment a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.

CALL FOR DE-ESCALATION

Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba after Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned what they said was the unexplained rise in Russian troop numbers.

Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow was massing forces in its biggest build-up since 2014, since Moscow annexed Crimea. He called Russia’s actions “very provocative”.

“In recent weeks Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.

Russia has said it moves its forces around as it sees fit, including for defensive purposes. It has regularly accused NATO of destabilizing Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday Russia had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to near its western borders in the last three weeks, responding to what it called threatening military action by NATO.

Shoigu, speaking on state television, said NATO was deploying 40,000 troops near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.

“In total, 40,000 troops and 15,000 weapons and pieces of military equipment are concentrated near our territory, including strategic aircraft,” Shoigu said.

The Western alliance denies any such plans.

SANCTIONS, MILITARY HELP

Kuleba said Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed separatist forces.

Kuleba appealed for further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military help to Kyiv.

“At the operational level, we need measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions,” Kuleba said after the NATO-Ukraine Commission met at the alliance headquarters.

This could be direct support aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would chair a video conference with allied defense and foreign ministers on Wednesday. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were expected to be present at NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine, as well as on Afghanistan, the diplomats said.

Austin, on a visit to Berlin, said the United States would ramp up its forces in Germany in light of the friction with Moscow, abandoning former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw about round 12,000 of the 36,000 troops from there.

Kyiv has welcomed the show of Western support, but it falls short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership of NATO.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan)

Merkel tells Putin to pull back troops as Kremlin accuses Ukraine of provocations

By Thomas Escritt and Tom Balmforth

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) -German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to pull back the Kremlin’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, while he in turn accused Kyiv of “provocative actions” in the conflict region.

Ukraine has raised the alarm over an increase in Russian forces near its eastern border as violence has risen along the line of contact separating its troops from Russia-backed separatists in its Donbass region.

“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” Germany’s government said in a readout of a telephone call between Merkel and Putin.

Russia has said its forces pose no threat and were defensive, but that they would stay there as long as Moscow saw fit.

A senior Kremlin official said on Thursday that Moscow could under certain circumstances be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass and that major hostilities could mark the beginning of the end of Ukraine as a country.

The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that “Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes.

The rouble hit a five-month low on Wednesday a day after Russia said it had begun a planned inspection of its army’s combat readiness involving thousands of drills.

On Thursday, Dmitry Kozak, a senior Kremlin official, said Ukraine’s government were like “children playing with matches.”

“I support the assessment that the start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration said.

At a news conference, Kozak was asked if Russia would protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine.

Referring in his reply to Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he said: “It all depends on the scale of the fire. If there is, as our president says, Srebrenica, apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).”

Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians. Moscow has denied interfering. While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic fighting never ceased.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)

Biden says U.S. commitment to NATO is ‘unshakeable’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Friday said the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance was “unshakeable” and promised to observe the principle that an attack on one member was an attack on all.

His statement was at odds with his predecessor, Donald Trump, who called the 30-member alliance outdated and at one point suggested Washington could withdraw.

“The United States is fully committed to our NATO alliance, and I welcome your growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defenses,” Biden told an online session of the Munich Security Conference.

“An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakeable vow.”

Trump administration officials had publicly hammered, and sought to shame, Germany and other NATO members for not meeting a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic output on defense.

Biden’s comments signaled a different approach – and one sure to be welcomed by European leaders and NATO officials.

“America’s back,” Biden told the security conference after his first virtual meeting with Group of Seven world leaders.

“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined – determined – to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership,” he said. Biden said the U.S. military was conducting a comprehensive review of its military posture around the world, but he had lifted orders to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany – another decision by the Trump administration that had shocked allies.

In addition, Biden said he had lifted a cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. forces that could be based in Germany.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Post-Brexit UK announces largest military spending since Cold War

By Andrew MacAskill and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War on Thursday, pledging to end the “era of retreat” as it seeks a post-Brexit role in a world Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned was more perilous than for decades.

Johnson said the extra spending reflected the need to upgrade military capabilities even as the COVID-19 pandemic pummels the economy and strains public finances. He outlined plans for a new space command, an artificial intelligence agency and said the navy would be restored as Europe’s most powerful.

Outlining the first conclusions from a big review of foreign policy and defense, he announced an extra 16.5 billion pounds ($22 billion) for the military over the next four years. The defense budget is now just under 42 billion pounds a year.

“The era of cutting our defense budget must end, and it ends now,” Johnson told parliament by video link from his Downing Street office, where he is isolating after contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have done this in the teeth of the pandemic, amid every other demand on our resources, because the defense of the realm and the safety of the British people must come first.”

NEW GLOBAL ROLE

Britain was the main battlefield ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and, alongside France, the principal military power in the European Union. But its 2016 vote to leave the EU has made its global role uncertain at a time when China is rising and President Donald Trump has cast doubt on U.S. support for traditional allies.

The military spending announcement comes just a week after Johnson promised U.S. President-elect Joe Biden that Britain was determined to remain a valuable military ally.

Christopher Miller, acting U.S. defense secretary in Trump’s outgoing administration, welcomed the extra spending.

“The UK is our most stalwart and capable ally, and this increase in spending is indicative of their commitment to NATO and our shared security,” he said. “With this increase, the UK military will continue to be one of the finest fighting forces in the world.”

The government said the increase will cement Britain’s position as the largest defense spender in Europe and second-largest in NATO.

A national cyber force will be established alongside the new space command, which will be capable of launching its first rocket by 2022. These and other new projects will create up to 10,000 jobs, the government said.

Britain’s main opposition Labor Party said the increase was long overdue after the ruling Conservative government cut the size of the armed forces by a quarter in the last decade.

The extra funding will raise further concerns about how the government manages its defense and security budget after repeated accusations it allowed costs to spiral for overly-ambitious projects.

A report by lawmakers said on Thursday that Britain’s GCHQ spying agency ignored evidence and broke its budget in choosing an expensive central London headquarters for a newly-created cyber-security center.

After media reports that billions of pounds could be cut from Britain’s foreign aid budget, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News that higher defense spending would not come at the expense of aid.

“It doesn’t mean to say we are abandoning the battlefield of international aid, we’re still one of the most generous givers of international aid,” Wallace said.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Trump may settle for partial Afghan withdrawal, despite Pentagon shakeup: sources

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s new Pentagon leadership team has not yet signaled an imminent, total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, raising expectations among allies that Trump might settle for only a partial reduction this year, sources said.

Trump fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, and appointed other top Pentagon officials last week after longstanding concerns that his priorities were not being dealt with urgently enough at the Defense Department.

They included ending the 19-year-old Afghan engagement by Christmas, an ambitious target that opponents of the country’s longest war welcomed but which Trump’s critics warned could be reckless given ongoing militant violence plaguing Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has featured in a flurry of introductory calls by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, Esper’s replacement, to U.S. allies’ defense ministers and chiefs of defense, a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

“It was a part of many of them because it is of great importance to our NATO allies, our allies in the region and also just global security and protecting the American homeland,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the official, speaking after the calls with allies, suggested that Trump would not push a withdrawal faster than conditions on the ground allow.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, which al Qaeda carried out. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan since then.

Some U.S. military officials, citing U.S. counter-terrorism priorities in Afghanistan, have privately urged Trump against going to zero at this point and want to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

“The president has acted appropriately in this, has never said: ‘Hey, we’re going to zero. Let’s go tomorrow.’ It has always been a conditions-based effort and that effort continues,” the senior U.S. defense official said, without explicitly detailing future drawdown plans.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SEE FIGHT TO THE FINISH’

Over the past four years, predicting Trump’s policy pronouncements has not always been easy.

On Oct. 7, Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

But U.S. officials say he has yet to issue orders to carry that withdrawal out. Doing so now would be difficult for the U.S. military to execute, especially given the reliance of NATO allies on the United States for logistical support, they add.

One NATO official, who asked not to be named, said the belief was the United States could soon announce a drawdown to 2,500 to 3,000 troops by Christmas.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien already raised such a possibility, saying last month the United States would go down to 2,500 by early 2021, in comments overshadowed by Trump’s Christmas timeline.

A NATO diplomat said Miller, in his introductory call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, did not suggest a complete withdrawal but instead a reduction of troops.

The senior U.S. defense official said U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan had been carried out in an “educated way so as not to revisit the Iraq withdrawal that failed in 2011.”

Then-President Barack Obama withdrew troops against military advice, only to return them to Iraq three years later.

Regardless of what Trump might do, Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Kabul, there is growing fear of a precipitous withdrawal that could further embolden the Taliban and undercut already sputtering peace talks, sources say. Miller, in a message to the U.S. armed forces released over the weekend, echoed Trump’s desire to end America’s overseas engagements by saying “it’s time to come home.” But he did not offer a timetable and stressed the need to finish the fight against al Qaeda.

The Taliban harbored al Qaeda’s leaders and the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan said the Taliban had not fulfilled their February accord commitment to break ties with al Qaeda.

“We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” wrote Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S., Greece call for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in east Mediterranean

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – The United States and Greece called on Monday for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the east Mediterranean as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a two-day trip to Greece amid increased regional tension over energy resources.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey, at loggerheads on a range of issues, have agreed to resume exploratory talks over contested maritime claims following weeks of tensions.

“The United States and Greece … reaffirmed their belief that maritime delimitation issues should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law,” the United States and Greece, also NATO allies, said in a joint statement after Pompeo met his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.

The United States also welcomed Greece’s readiness to seek maritime agreements with its neighbors in the region, they said after meeting in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Tensions escalated last month after Turkey dispatched the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel, escorted by gunboats, into a disputed area thought to be rich in energy resources, following a maritime agreement signed between Greece and Egypt.

Turkey has said the pact infringes on its own continental shelf. The agreement also overlaps with maritime zones Turkey agreed with Libya last year, decried as illegal by Greece.

Ankara recalled the Oruc Reis this month, saying it wished to give diplomacy a chance.

Pompeo has previously said the United States is “deeply concerned” about Turkish actions in the east Mediterranean.

ENERGY TIES

The United States also hopes to build up its energy ties with Greece, which seeks to become an energy hub in the Balkans and help Europe to diversify its energy resources.

Athens already imports large quantities of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is developing a floating LNG storage and regasification unit off the port of Alexandroupolis, which is expected to channel gas to Bulgaria via the Interconnector Greece – Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline and from there to central Europe by early 2023.

ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum have set up a joint venture that will look for gas and oil off the Greek island of Crete.

The United States has also expressed interest in the privatization of the ports of Alexandroupolis and Kavala in northern Greece.

Pompeo and Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis also signed on Monday a science and technology agreement. The two countries want to collaborate on artificial intelligence, cyber security, 5G and privatization of strategic infrastructure, their joint statement said.

Pompeo was due to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and to visit the Souda military base on Crete on Tuesday.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.S. expects to identify Belarus sanctions targets in a few days

By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States signaled on Friday that it will soon punish individual Belarusians with sanctions for election fraud and a brutal crackdown on protests as Washington urged Russia to tell Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down.

Lukashenko denies rigging the country’s Aug. 9 election, which official results said he won by a landslide. He also has refused to talk to the opposition, accusing them of trying to wreck the former Soviet republic squeezed between NATO and Russia.

Speaking to reporters during a conference call, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Washington is coordinating sanctions with the European Union but made clear neither would wait for the other to impose penalties.

“We are looking at targeted sanctions aimed at the individuals who are most responsible for … the violence as well as the theft of the election,” Biegun said, adding wider sanctions might be considered later but Washington was loath to do anything that would hurt the broader population.

A senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters on Sept. 1 Washington was weighing sanctions on seven Belarusians.

Biegun said Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years and is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, is increasingly reliant on Moscow to maintain his rule, saying this could turn Belarusian public opinion against Russia.

“It risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow,” he said, adding that he hoped the Kremlin would voice concern about the violence against protesters in Belarus and the abductions of opposition figures.

“A free and fair election will allow Belarusian people to select who will be the next president of Belarus,” he said. “Ultimately we hope the message from Moscow to Minsk is that the ruler needs to give way to the will of his people.”

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

Turkey says U.S. offering Patriot systems if S-400s remain unboxed

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States has offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system if Ankara promises not to operate a rival Russian system, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, in what he called a significant softening in Washington’s position.

Two Turkish officials told Reuters that Turkey was evaluating the U.S. offer but that Ankara had not changed its plans for the Russian S-400 systems, which it has said it will start to activate next month.

NATO allies Turkey and the United States have been at odds over Ankara’s purchase last year of the S-400s, which Washington says are incompatible with the alliance’s defense systems.

After heavy fighting in northwestern Syria’s Idlib region this year Turkey asked Washington to deploy Patriots along its border with Syria for protection but the United States said Turkey cannot have both the S-400s and the Patriots.

Speaking to reporters on his return flight from Brussels, Erdogan said Ankara had told Washington to deploy Patriot systems to Turkey and that it was ready to purchase the systems from the United States as well.

“We made this offer to the United States on the Patriot: If you are going to give us Patriots, then do it. We can also buy Patriots from you,” he said.

“They also softened significantly on this S-400 issue. They are now at the point of ‘promise us you won’t make the S-400s operational’,” Erdogan added.

Previous talks between Turkey and the United States on the purchase of the Patriots have collapsed over a host of issues, from the S-400s to Ankara’s dissatisfaction with Washington’s terms. Turkey has said it will only agree to an offer if it includes technology transfer and joint production terms.

While ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained, the United States has offered support for its ally as it battle to stop Russia-backed Syrian government advances in Idlib.

But U.S. officials said on Tuesday Ankara had to clarify its position on the S-400s for their security ties to advance.

U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield told reporters on a conference call from Brussels that Washington was discussing with NATO what support it can offer Turkey militarily.

Jeffrey also said they had considered possible responses should Russia and the Syrian government break a ceasefire in Idlib, officials said.

He suggested other NATO states could individually or as an alliance provide military support to help Turkey. But he ruled out sending ground troops and said there still needed to be a resolution to the S-400 issue for the security relationship to move forward.

“You can forget ground troops. Turkey has demonstrated that it and its opposition forces are more than capable of holding ground on their own,” Jeffrey said. “The issue is the situation in the air and it’s what we are looking at,” he said.

Washington did not believe that Russia and Syrian had any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib, he said.

“They are out to get a military victory in Syria and our goal is to make it difficult for them to do that,” Jeffrey said.

“Our goal is…to make them think twice. If they ignore our warnings and preparations and move forward, then we will react as rapidly as possible in consultation with our NATO and European allies on what the package of sanctions and other reactions will be.”

POSITION “UNCHANGED”

While Erdogan has frequently referred to the S-400 purchase as a “done deal” and said Turkey will not turn back from it, he did not repeat that stance in his comments on Tuesday. Turkish officials, however, said Turkey’s position remained unchanged.

“The United States has once again brought up the Patriot offer. The United States’ previous strong stance isn’t the case any more. They are approaching Turkey more empathetically now,” a senior official said.

“The core condition is that the S-400s are not activated, or in other words that they are not unboxed. This offer is being evaluated, but there is no change of stance on the S-400s,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity said.

A separate Turkish official told Reuters the latest offer by Washington also included Turkey’s return to the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, which Turkey was involved in both as manufacturer of plane parts and customer for the jets.

After Ankara bought the S-400s, Washington suspended its involvement in the program and threatened sanctions.

“There is a U.S. offer for Patriots, but this offer includes the F-35s,” the Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Air defense systems can be purchased, but Turkey’s conditions are clear: there has to be issues like the know-how transfer and joint production.”

Turkey has said it plans to activate the S-400s it received from Russia in April. The United States has warned that such a move will trigger U.S. sanctions, though Ankara has repeatedly said good ties between Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump may be able to avert this.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay, additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Daren Butler, Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)