US Senator: I told Turkey they can avoid sanctions if they don’t activate Russian radar

Sen. Lindsey Graham, on the request of President Trump, called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu with a simple pitch on Wednesday: Just don’t activate the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

“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 told Defense One. “My pitch to Turkey was, let’s stand down on the S-400, let’s start free trade agreement negotiations.”

Turkey took possession of components of the system earlier this month, prompting the White House to boot Ankara out of the F-35 program and triggering the possibility of U.S. sanctions.

If Turkey turns on the advanced air defense system, Graham said, the U.S. relationship with NATO ally Turkey “takes a very dark turn.”

Trump has expressed some ambivalence about punishing Turkey for buying the S-400, which military leaders have said would compromise the F-35 and other NATO systems. (Years ago, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan had sought to purchase the U.S.-made Patriot system, but the two sides could not come to terms.)

Some lawmakers have pressed to quickly implement congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally that has now purchased proscribed Russian defense equipment. But at a private meeting with Republican senators on Tuesday, Trump asked lawmakers for “flexibility” in responding to the purchase, NBC News reported.

After that meeting, Trump “told me to call Turkey,” Graham said on Thursday.

“I think there’s space to do a free trade agreement if we don’t activate the system,” he said. “If the system gets activated, there are no options left, the [sanctions] law is clear.”