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Russia and Turkey: Patching up the Quarrel

Russia's publication of Erdogan's letter of apology to Putin points to an improvement in relations.

Most unusually, Russia’s Presidential website has published lengthy extracts from Erdogan’s letter of apology to Putin for the shooting down last year of the Russian SU24 aircraft.  The key excerpts are as follows:

“We never had the desire or deliberate intention of shooting down the Russian Federation’s plane…(and) undertook much effort at great risk to retrieve the Russian pilot’s body from the Syrian opposition and bring it back to Turkey, where pre-burial procedures were carried out in accordance with religious and military procedures.

We performed this work at a level worthy of our two countries’ relations. I once again express my sympathy and profound condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who was killed and I am saying: “Excuse us.” I share their grief with all my heart. We look on this Russian pilot’s family as we would a Turkish family and we are ready to undertake any initiative that could lessen the pain and severity of the damage caused.”

This is emphatically not an admission that the Turks shot the SU24 down deliberately – which is what many (myself included) think.  On the contrary, it is a denial that this was the case.

The Russians almost certainly believe that the SU24 was shot down deliberately.  Indeed I have heard that the reason Putin reacted so strongly to the shooting down of the SU24 is that – contrary to the Russian military’s advice – he had believed Erdogan’s assurances that such a thing would not happen and blamed himself for believing Erdogan’s assurances and for disregarding the warnings of his own military.

The Russians however are almost certainly realistic enough to know that an outright admission from Erdogan that the SU24 was shot down on purpose is not coming.  Such a thing would be politically impossible for Erdogan to do.  Were he to do it, it is unlikely he would survive as Turkey’s leader for very long.   

The Russians are also almost certainly pragmatic enough to accept Erdogan’s apology.  From their point of view not only have they forced an apology out of Erdogan – which is more than anyone else has ever done – but they have taught him a lesson he is never likely to forget. 

Ultimately Turkey is too important a country for the Russians to prolong the quarrel.  In the immediate term the Russians want at least a modicum of cooperation from the Turks to close the border with Syria in order to stabilise the situation there.  Beyond that Turkey is a critical trade and economic partner, with the Russians before the breakdown in relations planning a major gas pipeline to Turkey (“Turk Stream”) in place of the cancelled South Stream.  At a more prosaic level Turkey had become a major and popular tourist destination for Russian tourists holidaying in the summer, and their return there will be popular in both countries.

Beyond these obvious political and economic interests there are the greater strategic calculations.  Turkey is a major Eurasian power and until the sudden breakdown in relations last year the Russians and the Chinese were making serious efforts to draw Turkey closer into the Eurasian system despite the country’s membership of NATO.  Turkey for example already has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and was showing increasing interest in the Eurasian Economic Union.  It is also a key participant in the Chinese Silk Road project.  A restoration in relations between Turkey and Russia should hopefully lead to a resumption of the dialogue between the Eurasian powers and Turkey with the ultimate intention of drawing Turkey away from the West in order to integrate it with the Eurasian institutions.

In summary, not only are there compelling reasons why Russia might want to mend its fences with Turkey but the mere fact the Russians have gone to the trouble of publishing extracts from Erdogan’s letter on their Presidential website suggests that that is their intention and that Erdogan’s apology – after a period when the Russians will probably leave him to stew – is going to be accepted.

A more interesting question is why did Erdogan apologise in the way he has just done?  After all he is hardly the sort of person to proffer apologies.  His more usual conduct is to demand apologies from others.

The short answer is that Erdogan never imagined that the shooting down of the SU24 would cause the damage to his relations with Russia that it did.  Almost from the first moment it was obvious that  he knew it was a mistake and he has since worked consistently to try to repair the damage.

Russia and Turkey have sharply conflicting views about Syria but on all other economic and geopolitical questions their interests converge.  Not only is Russia increasingly Turkey’s key economic partner and its major energy supplier, but as became painfully clear in the immediate aftermath of the SU24 shoot down Turkey has no real friends with opinion in Europe if anything supporting Russia.  Even US President Obama was prepared to give Turkey only tepid support. 

Since then the refugee crisis has led to further criticism of Erdogan and Turkey in Europe, with much of European opinion deploring the deal Merkel did with Erdogan to solve the crisis.  Though Erdogan’s letter of apology to Putin was probably drafted before the British Brexit referendum, its result would have reinforced what must have already become increasingly obvious to the Turkish elite and people – that there is no prospect of Turkey joining the EU in any foreseeable reality and that the chances of Turkey obtaining visa free access to Europe are vanishing as well.

In the light of all this the need to mend fences with Russia – especially before what would otherwise be a disastrous tourist season gets underway – was from Turkey’s point of view compelling and Erdogan has shown the realism to take the necessary first step.

Whilst political and economic relations between Russia and Turkey will probably now be swiftly repaired, the personal relations between the countries’ two leaders – Putin and Erdogan – have probably been damaged beyond repair.  Whilst Erdogan may have come to respect – and fear – Putin even more than he did before, experience shows that Putin’s trust once lost is never recovered.

Ultimately however where the interests of two countries coincide sufficiently strongly personal differences between the leaders – even when one is as volatile a personality as Erdogan – rarely suffice by themselves to pull them apart.  In a sense Erdogan’s letter of apology to Putin is simply a further example of this.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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