Turkey-Russia back to future
It was a relief for Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan when his Russian host, Vladimir Putin, did not mention the crisis any longer, as he did before the 1.5-hour talk in St. Petersburg press conference on Aug. 9.
It was another relief when Putin said the priority should return relations to the way they were before November 2015 and take them forward from that point. On Nov. 24, 2015, Turkish jets downed a Russian jet as it violated the Syria-Turkey border, starting a major crisis in relations. The crisis ended with a letter of “excuse” from Erdoğan to Putin on June 24, 2016, through secret diplomacy in which Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ramazan Apdulatipov of the autonomous Dagestan Republic and Turkish businessman Cavit Çağlar played mediation roles; the end of the crisis was announced on June 27 in Moscow. (Story of Secret Diplomacy, HDN, Aug. 9, 2016.)
In yesterday’s press conference Putin directly dived into economic relations, as if he forgot about the political crisis. They also talked about the Turkish (or South) Stream gas project via Turkey to Europe, tourism, trade and construction. He said that the sanctions imposed by Russia after the crisis would be lifted (albeit gradually).
Erdoğan also talked in length about economic projects. He said that the crisis and leaving the crisis behind had made Turkish-Russian relations more resilient. He particularly thanked Putin for calling him up in solidarity the day after the July 15 failed coup attempt – before the head of states of any NATO member countries; it was much appreciated by him. He underlined that it was one of the reasons why he made his first visit abroad to Russia after the coup attempt. Erdoğan highlighted a round-table meeting between top Turkish and Russian investors which was scheduled on the sidelines of the meeting between the two leaders; he said the aim should be to increase the bilateral trade volume to $100 billion a year, which was $35 billion before the crisis.
There was an important detail mentioned in the press conference. Both Erdoğan and Putin pointed at the need to handle the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project in a “strategic” manner. That might have a tangential link to the Syria crisis, which is still a major difference in foreign policies of the two countries. The location of the plant construction is on Turkey’s East Mediterranean coast in the danger zone related to the Syria civil war and also to Turkey’s İncirlik Air Base, which is being used by NATO and U.S.-led coalition flights against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the two leaders decided to have a second – and with limited participation – meeting on Syria and security matters. It should not be a surprise for anyone that there could be revisions in the Syrian policies of both Russia and Turkey at differing proportions. Erdoğan said before the meetings that Russia had became the major actor in the Syria conflict – an indirect criticism of the U.S.