Story of secret diplomacy that ended Russia-Turkey jet crisis
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan departs for Russia on Aug. 9 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in his first trip abroad since the failed coup attempt of July 15.
It will also be Erdoğan’s first visit to Russia after the crisis that began with the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by Turkish F-16s after they violated the border with Syria on Nov. 24, 2015; two Russian air force pilots died as a result of the incident.
The crisis in the political sphere had implications in the economic arena as well as Turkey’s tourism industry suffered a major blow that came in addition to suicide bomb attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Turkish food exports to Russia also dipped.
Turkish security operations against ISIL and the PKK were also blocked by the Russian presence there. And big Turkish companies that were involved in the tourism, construction and retail business in Russia started to experience serious difficulties. But the crisis was ultimately ended, opening the way for normalization, which enabled the Aug.9 visit following a statement from the Kremlin on June 27.
Putin called Erdoğan out of solidarity before all NATO member countries’ heads following the July 15 coup attempt. And Erdoğan thanked the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev – who was the first president to show solidarity after the coup attempt – for his support in solving the crisis with Russia during a press conference on Aug. 5 in Ankara.
Not many reporters paid much attention to the remark, which held the key to the untold story of the secret diplomacy that ended the crisis.
According to İbrahim Kalın, the spokesman for Erdoğan, businessman “Cavit Çağlar played a very important role” in solving the crisis, as well as “Nursultan Nazarbayev, who showed great friendship to Turkey” and “the patriotic initiative taken by Gen. Hulusi Akar, the Chief of General Staff” despite the area being out of his responsibility. Kalın did not deny the story but gave no further details. Çağlar told the Hürriyet Daily News on the phone that he had “nothing to say in addition to Mr. Kalın, who represents the state” and that he “could not give any details.”
According to high-ranking diplomatic and security sources who asked not to be named, the secret diplomacy ending the Turkish-Russian crisis unfolded as follows:
Late April, Akar told Erdoğan that there might be a channel that could be used to solve the crisis. He told Erdoğan that Cavit Çağlar, a textile investor, had business in the Russian Federal Republic of Dagestan. Çağlar used to be in politics in the 1990s, serving as a minister of state in Süleyman Demirel’s cabinets and knew the Dagestani president, Ramazan Abdulatipov, well from those times. Abdulatipov had access to Putin through his chief adviser, Yuri Ushakov. When Çağlar was a minister, Akar was the chief of the cabinet for the then-chief of General Staff, and they had known each other well since then. Çağlar had been beneficial to the state as a minister and then as a businessman before, Akar told Erdoğan. He was the channel between Ankara and Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan in Nakhchevan and in Baku in the mid-1990s and it was he who gave his private jet to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) team to fly to Kenya in 1999 to arrest PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in a joint operation with the CIA. Akar told Erdoğan in a meeting where Kalın was present that Çağlar had financial problems in 2000s and faced court for that but was reliable in state operations. After meeting with Çağlar and Akar in Istanbul on April 30, Erdoğan gave the green light for the operation.
Appointed by Erdoğan as the contact person for Turkey in relations with Ushakov for Russia, Kalın started to pen the draft of the letter from Erdoğan to Putin. Through Çağlar and Abdulatipov, shuttle diplomacy started between Ankara and Moscow, where the content and form of the letter was edited by the two parties a number of times during May and early June.
On June 22, Kazakhstan Ambassador to Ankara Zhanseit Tuimebayev called up Kalın with an “urgent” note. Nazarbayev had met with Putin in St. Petersburg and said that if Erdoğan was ready to send the letter, Putin was ready to accept it. Erdoğan wanted the normalization but not was ready to send a letter with the words “apology” and “compensation” in it. Would he apologize for defending the borders of the country?
On June 23, again before an iftar dinner, Tuimebayev called Kalın again with an “urgent” note. Nazarbayev had landed in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, for the Shanghai Cooperation Summit and would meet with Putin the next morning before the end of the summit by 1 p.m. If the letter could get there by then, even with slight editing, that might help end the crisis. Kalın immediately informed Erdoğan, who called Gen. Akar to the Presidency at around 11 p.m. on June 23.
In the meantime, Kalın made another draft and working together with Russian translators and diplomats from the Kazakh Embassy in Ankara, they managed to find the Russian word of “izvinite” – which is stronger than saying “sorry,” but not as strong as “apology.”
Erdoğan signed the letter and asked Kalın to take off immediately. Kalın’s jet took off from Ankara at 3 a.m. on the morning of June 24. The first stop was Istanbul to take Çağlar, his adviser and a Russian translator from there. The plane took off from Istanbul at around 4:30 a.m. but was faced with the risk of no flight permission over Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Foreign Ministry started to call up those capitals. Messaging via WhatsApp thanks to the WiFi on board the presidential plane, they were able to get permission from Georgia just 20 minutes before entering its air space. The permission from Azerbaijan came while flying over Georgia, from Turkmenistan while over Azerbaijan, but there was nothing from Uzbekistan. Its airspace had been closed for security reasons regarding the Shanghai Summit. Nazarbayev offered a Kazakh presidential helicopter waiting in Chimkent near the Uzbek border to take them to Tashkent, but the plane circling over Turkmenistan was about to run out of fuel. So Nazarbayev applied to Uzbek President Islam Karimov and asked for permission for “his visitors from Turkey;” Karimov approved it.
The plane carrying Kalın and Çağlar landed at Tashkent at around 12:15. Nazarbayev was waiting for them and took them to a meeting room upstairs. Nazarbayev asked for the Russian copy of the letter, read it carefully and said, “This is good.” The Turks only then learned that Putin and his delegation was in the next room. Nazarbayev asked if Ushakov could join them, told Ushakov that the letter was acceptable and told everyone in the room that “was it” from him and that they should sort out the rest.
After taking the letter to Putin, Ushakov returned to the Turkish delegation soon and said Putin approved it despite finding it “a tad closer to the Turkish position” because of the new word found to replace apology.
Kalın and Ushakov agreed that the statement was to be made on June 27 in Moscow after Ankara saw the message in advance. The Russians kept their promise. The statement was made on time. It was right after a statement made on June 26 to say that the final talks in Rome for the normalization of relations with Israel were successfully finalized by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu.
Two important steps were taken in two consecutive days to normalize Turkey’s relations with its neighborhood.
Little did Turkey know that there was going to be a military coup attempt in just two weeks’ time on July 15.