Russian and Turkish leaders reboot their relationship with St. Petersburg talks
Talks signal to West that Turkey has other options geopolitically, say analysts
Nine months after Turkish forces shot a Russian warplane out of the sky near the Syrian border, the bad blood between the countries is over.
Following talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg Tuesday, the two leaders announced they were restoring their bilateral relationship to the levels that existed prior to the shootdown last November.
“This meeting has a very significant importance for the fate of the Russia-Turkey relationship,” said Putin, at a news conference where he was repeatedly referred to by Erdogan as a “dear friend.”
The Turkish leader said the economic and political relationship between the two countries would be strengthened to become stronger and more resilient.
“Both parties are determined to improve bilateral relations and it is my assumption that the communities of both countries have this expectation of us,” said Erdogan.
Russia slapped a raft of sanctions on Turkey in the wake of the deadly jet incident, hurting Turkish exports and damaging its tourism industry.
Putin called the attack “a stab in the back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists,” while Russian officials accused Erdogan’s family members of oil dealing with ISIS – allegations Erdogan strenuously denied.
But the relationship began to thaw in June, when Erdogan wrote a letter expressing “regret” to the family of the pilot who was killed in the shootdown.
When Erdogan faced down an attempted military coup on July 15, the Russian President was among the first world leaders to call and offer his support – a phone call that was repeatedly referenced during the news conference.
The reboot with Russia comes at a time when Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies in the West is under strain, amid criticism of Ankara’s post-coup crackdown and tough negotiations with the EU over a deal on migration.
So what are the issues at play in the rekindled relationship?
A major focus of the announcement was on restoring lucrative economic and trade ties – a move that will benefit the fragile economies of both countries.
Russia is one of Turkey’s most important export markets, and a key supplier of energy. The normalization of ties clears the way for progress on major energy infrastructure projects – such as Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, to be built with Russian involvement, and a major natural gas pipeline from southern Russia to Turkey.
Russia also imposed a ban on Turkish agricultural imports following the shootdown, as well as a ban on charter flights between the countries, which reduced the flow of Russian tourists into Turkey to a trickle, hurting a sector also suffering the impact of a string of terror attacks across the country.
These will also be lifted as economic ties between the countries are normalized, the leaders said.
Post-coup support for Turkey
The talks came at a moment when Turkey is “increasingly isolated regionally and globally,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London.
Erdogan has taken umbrage at the response by Western allies to last month’s coup attempt, accusing them of failing to condemn those behind the coup, and being overly critical of the sweeping crackdown he launched in its wake. About 22,000 people have been arrested or detained by Turkish authorities following the failed takeover.
Erdogan also wants the US to hand over Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric he accuses of having masterminded the coup.
Russia holds no such concerns about the purge, and gives an important endorsement on the international stage of Ankara’s controversial crackdown, amid concerns over the mass detentions.
“It is our principle position (that) we are always categorically against any attempts at unconstitutional deeds,” Putin said Tuesday.
The Turkish leader made a point of mentioning that the visit to St. Petersburg was his first foreign trip since he saw off the failed challenge to his rule, perhaps an indication of his dismay at the perceived lack of support from his NATO partners.
“This was not handled well by either the United States or Europe,” said James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. “We’re seeing the results of that right now.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, said Erdogan may also be seeking for Putin to use his influence in Central Asian republics where the Gulen movement has roots to crack down on the network there.
Syria and the war on terror
Both countries are also key players in the war in Syria.
But they said their discussion of the Syrian situation would come after their news conference Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to compartmentalize the economic and trade questions from the thornier issue of the war.
While greater cooperation in Syria would be in the interests of both sides, with Turkey and Russia on opposite sides in terms of their support of the Syrian regime, the scope for coordination was limited, said Hakura.
“Turkey seeks regime change, Russia is in favor of regime stability. Those objectives are mutually exclusive,” he said.
Russia also backs Kurdish forces in Syria, while Turkey is fighting against Kurdish militants at home.
There is a potential for greater cooperation in targeting their common enemy, ISIS, and potentially working to limit some of the violence in northern Syria, he said.
Putin told reporters that both sides shared an understanding that the war on terrorism was the most important concern.
Erdogan would seek to set out a new framework with Russia to boost Turkey’s “quite diminished influence” in the conflict, said Hakura.
Relations with the West
Although Turkish officials deny it, Erdogan’s rapprochement with Moscow is also partly motivated by the desire to show his NATO allies that he has other potential friends on the international stage, said Hakura.
“He is trying to use Russia to gain leverage with the United States and Europe,” he said.
For Russia, fueling tensions within the NATO alliance is squarely within its interests, says Alexander Shimulin, of the US-Canada Institute in Moscow.
Turkey is in complicated negotiations with the EU over their deal in response to the migrant crisis.
Under the agreement enacted earlier this year, migrants who cross into Greece illegally are sent back to Turkey, while for every Syrian sent back to Turkey, a vetted Syrian refugee will go from Turkey to Europe to be resettled.
The deal also promised Turkey billions in funding as well as various political concessions, including visa-free travel for Turks in Europe.
As the negotiations have become rockier in the wake of the coup attempt, Turkey has threatened to cancel the deal over Europe’s delay in implementing the promised visa-waiver by October; German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has spoken of “visa blackmail.”
Hakura said the deal could collapse, but Europe is better equipped to deal with the migrant challenge if it does, and was more likely to adopt a tougher line in their negotiations with Erdogan.
“I think the West understands Turkey’s near-total dependency on the West for its economic survival, security and its foreign policy,” he said.
“The more muscular Europe’s approach to Turkey, the more likely it is that the agreement will have a longer shelf life.
“Erdogan can threaten to huff and puff and threaten to blow the house down but at the end of the day it is a house made of bricks.”
By contrast, he said, Turkey’s relationship with Russia was “an alliance of convenience, not a strategic relationship.”
CNN’s Matthew Chance, Arwa Damon, Lindsay Isaac, Sebastian Shukla, Simon Cullen and Onur Çakir contributed to this report.