Erdogan heads to Russia to mend bilateral ties with Putin

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making a visit to Russia to rebuild ties. Erdogan is seeking to overcome a long history of dispute with Moscow and forge new alliances after the July 15 coup attempt.

Shattered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last year and an ensuing diplomatic spat, Turkish President Erdogan is heading to St. Petersburg to mend ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an interview with the TASS news agency ahead of the trip, Erdogan repeatedly referred to Putin as his “dear” and “respected” friend.

Turkey and Russia, which once described each other as strategic partners, have suffered disagreements, especially over their respective policies in the Syrian war, culminating in the infamous downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian-Turkish border in late 2015. Erdogan, however, is hoping to leave the past behind, saying that the meeting in St. Petersburg would be a new beginningbetween him and his “friend Vladimir”

“This visit strikes me as a new milepost in our bilateral relations, starting again from a clean slate,” Erdogan told TASS.

“A new page will be opened in Russo-Turkish ties. This new page will include military, economic and cultural cooperation.”

Russia has accepted Ankara’s expressions of regret over the downing of the warplane in the apparent hope of reconciliation while also reviving the relationship. Turkish officials have even detained the pilots of the Turkish planes that shot down the Russian jet on November 24, 2015, accusing them of being involved in the failed coup attempt.

In the long shadow of Turkey’s failed coup d’etat

It will be Erdogan’s first foreign trip after the July 15 coup attempt, when a group of renegade Turkish military officers attempted to seize power leaving at least 230 people dead. Turkey has since blasted its Western allies for expressing concern over the scope of its ensuing crackdown on dissidents, complaining that the West has shown a lack of support for its democratically elected government. In contrast, Russia was quick to voice support to Erdogan after the failed coup without mentioning any concern about the crackdown.

Russia fighter jetThe downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border sparked a diplomatic crisis between the countries – one which Erdogan is hoping to mend

As Turkey’s relations with traditional NATO allies such as the United States and Europe are starting to show increasing strain amid Ankara’s sweeping crackdown, the Turkish president appears to be turning to Russia for support.

Germany meanwhile said it did not believe that a thawing in relations between Turkey and Russia would ultimately affect Turkey’s role in NATO. A German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in fact welcomed the end of tensions between the two countries.

“We do not believe that the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia will have consequences for the security partnership within NATO,” spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli said.

A long history of disagreement

Russia reacted to the downing of its jet fighter with a ban on the sale of package tours to Turkey and an import embargo on Turkish agriculture, which Turkey countered by shelving a major Russian natural gas pipeline to Turkey. The bitter dispute even led Putin to declare that Erdogan had left modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk “turning in his grave.”

But relations between Turkey and Russia – two powers vying for influence in the region – have never been straightforward. Ties between the two nations can at best be described as a marriage of convenience.

Turkey’s predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia’s precursor, the Russian Empire, have fought three centuries of war, culminating in an armistice with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk at the end of World War I. Though the two powers didn’t exchange animosities during the Cold War they found themselves on opposing sides, with Turkey entering NATO and the Soviet Union forming the Warsaw Pact.

At the end of the Cold War, Russia and Turkey had a reasonable relationship, though Turkey’s overt support of the newly formed Central Asian countries gave Russia cause for concern and caution. Turkic-speaking nations like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan continue to enjoy political and economic benefits by keeping close ties with Turkey.

Relations between Russia and Turkey improved over the years and only began detioriating with the onset of the Syrian war, with Russia supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey asking for the Syrian leader to be removed to bring an end to the war. The downing of the Russian jet fighter near the Syrian-Turkish border dealt a final blow, from which the two countries are only starting to recover.

ss/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters)