Turkey-Russia rapprochement

Published 19.06.2016 23:22

When the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) newly elected Chairman Binali Yıldırım took over the prime ministry, he announced that his government would "reduce the number of our enemies and increase the number of our friends."

Since Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, tensions with Moscow not only had negative effects on the Turkish economy but also limited Ankara's involvement in the Syrian civil war. In recent months, the threat of Russian attacks against Turkish jets prevented Turkey's participation in coalition missions as Moscow placed Turkish interests at risk by actively supporting the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK's Syrian franchise.

To be clear, the side effects of the tension didn't exclusively hurt Turkey's interests. In addition to their inability to move forward with major joint projects including the Turkish Stream pipeline, the Russians were uncomfortable with the growing presence of NATO in the Caucasus - an unintended consequence of antagonizing Ankara.

In recent months, Turkish leaders had made it clear that they would like to leave the dispute with Russia behind them. To facilitate rapprochement, a high-level Turkish delegation recently visited Moscow and shared Turkey's side of the story. At the same time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on multiple occasions stated that it made little sense for Turkey and Russia to let a Russian pilot's mistake derail mutually beneficial relations.

In response, the Russian government announced that they would like Turkey to meet three demands - issue an apology, offer compensation and hand over those responsible for the jet's downing to Russian authorities. Obviously, Ankara found the demands unacceptable. Provided that the Russian jet had violated Turkish airspace, accepting the Kremlin's terms would mean accepting the charges.

What changed Turkey's calculus was a sign of Russia's willingness to talk. During an official trip to Greece, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that "we heard statements but never received an apology. We would like to improve our relations [with Turkey]. But we didn't hurt this relationship and words just aren't enough. They need to do something. But we are in touch with Turkey. There are many ways to communicate. We expect certain steps to be taken."

According to a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject's sensitivity, Turkey feels that they can repair their ties with Moscow. "We are actively communicating with the Russians and we would like to address this issue even though going back to the good old days isn't easy," he said. "Russia has been softening its stance and the fact that they made demands reflects their desire to cooperate. It is safe to assume that things will get better soon." Although my source acknowledged that the Russian had presented the Turkish government a new offer, he refused to discussed the details of the Russian proposal.

Just days after my meeting with the Turkish official, Ankara took a new step. President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yıldırım sent congratulatory letters to their Russian counterparts on the occasion of the Russian national day. Both leaders maintained that they would like to improve Turkey's ties with Moscow. The Russians came back with a counter-offer and announced that they would like an apology and compensation, dropping the request for a trial in Russia. The next day, Erdoğan reciprocated Moscow's good will by inviting the Russian ambassador to an iftar dinner at the presidential complex.

It would appear that Turkey and Russia are ready to take the necessary steps to settle the dispute through dialogue. Needless to say, turning over a fresh leaf would serve the interests of both countries, who suffered unnecessary setbacks in recent months. But it's important to note that Ankara and Moscow will continue to disagree on the future of Syria and the Russian invasion of Crimea. And new confrontations won't be off the table unless Moscow stops bothering Turkey and the international community.

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