Russia's Putin and Turkey's Erdogan meet after damaging rift

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Story highlights

  • The two leaders fell out after a Russian warplane was shot down over Syria by Turkey
  • Turkey's economy is suffering during the spat with Moscow

St. Petersburg, Russia (CNN)Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in the Russian city of St. Petersburg for a face-to-face meeting with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

It's the first time the two leaders have met since Turkish interceptors blasted a Russian warplane out of the skies over Syria in November.
    The incident, in which one of the air crew was killed as he parachuted from the aircraft, provoked a diplomatic firestorm, with a furious Kremlin vowing retribution.
    A second Russian serviceman was killed trying to rescue the other crew member on the ground.
    "Today's loss for us was like a stab in the back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists," President Putin said on state television at the time.
    "It will have serious consequences for Russia's relations with Turkey, " he promised.
    How tensions escalated between Turkey and Russia
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    How tensions escalated between Turkey and Russia 03:04

    Turkey feels the pinch

    Turkey: A country in turmoil
    Turkey: A country in turmoil

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    Turkey: A country in turmoil 01:09
    He wasn't kidding.
    As well as blocking trade ties with Ankara and banning the import of food items from Turkey, Putin also struck at the Turkish tourism industry, halting charter flights that carried millions of Russians to Turkish resorts.
    Visa-free travel to Russia was canceled for Turks, and Turkish workers were asked to leave, their visas revoked.
    The Kremlin's retribution also got personal. Russian defense officials called an unprecedented news conference to reveal satellite and spy plane video of what they said were oil shipments to Turkey from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria.
    Defense officials told journalists they believed the family of President Erdogan was intimately involved in the illegal trade and was profiting from it.
    Erdogan strenuously denied the allegations.
    For months it seemed the bitterness between Putin and Erdogan would never heal: a battle of wills between two autocratic hardliners at odds over Syria.

    'Desperation'

    Russian tourists come back to Turkey
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    But then, suddenly, something changed.
    The Turkish leader unexpectedly moved to heal the rift with the Kremlin, writing a letter expressing "regret" to the family of the pilot who was killed in the shoot-down.
    "Turkey's attempt to restore ties to Russia was driven by desperation," said Fadi Hakura, Turkey specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London.
    "Turkey needed to restore economic and trade ties to Russia. Turkey needs Russian tourists to flow back to the Turkish resorts. Turkey also needs Russia to try to restore some of the lost influence it once had in Syria," he told CNN.
    It seems to have worked.
    Within days of the Erdogan letter, the foreign ministers of the two rivals were meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and Putin was lifting sanctions, beginning what he said was the process of normalizing trade ties.

    Coup opportunity

    Media and military targeted in Turkey
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    Then the situation took a dramatic turn, with events in Turkey giving Erdogan's rekindled ties with Putin unexpected significance.
    A failed coup in Turkey gave way to a widespread crackdown by Erdogan on his opponents. Many Turks believed their allies in the West had failed to condemn to coup attempt harshly enough, and were too critical of the mass arrests.
    For Turkey, the détente with Russia was now an opportunity display its strategic options.
    Turkish officials deny they are turning their backs on the West. But Erdogan's cordial trip to Russia, a nation at odds with the West on a host of issues from Syria to Ukraine, may give Turkey's allies pause for thought.
    And amid Ankara's strained relations with the West, the Kremlin also senses an opportunity to win over a NATO member, said Alexander Shimulin, of the US-Canada Institute in Moscow.
    "To increase divisions within the Western community and in NATO is one of the purposes and one of the goals designed by Russia," he said.
    Also on Tuesday, Putin spoke with new UK Prime Minister Theresa May and congratulated her, Downing Street said in a statement.
    "The Prime Minister noted the importance of the relationship between the UK and Russia, and expressed the hope that, despite differences on certain issues, they could communicate in an open and honest way about the issues that mattered most to them," the statement said.
    "The Prime Minister and President agreed that British and Russian citizens faced common threats from terrorism, and that cooperation on aviation security in particular was a vital part of the international counter-terrorism effort."