If Turkey and Russia restore ties, it will be on Putin's terms

Russia and Turkey even disagree over whether a letter the Turkish president sent his Russian counterpart is an apology or not. 

Video of Russian warplane crashing in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015. Although Turkey has apologized for the incident, Russia has not said it will lift economic sanctions just yet.

Is seven months too late to say sorry?

After Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan gave in Monday to Vladimir Putin's demand that he apologize for the downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November, with Mr. Erdoğan expressing regret for it in a letter Monday, the Kremlin said the next day that accepting the apology – and lifting economic sanctions – won't be that easy.

"One should not think it possible to normalize everything within a few days, but work in this direction will continue," Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin's press secretary, said in a conference call with reporters.

"President Putin has expressed more than once his willingness to maintain good relations with Turkey and the Turkish people," said Peskov. "Now a very important step has been made."

Putin and Mr. Erdoğan will hold a telephone conversation Wednesday at Moscow's initiative, said Peskov.

The Russian president's reluctance to immediately accept Erdoğan's apology shows his interest in capitalizing on as many of the political and economic benefits as he can. The sanctions the Kremlin imposed on Turkey, coupled with international sanctions against Russia, have benefited its domestic economy. More important for Putin, the deeply personal language of Erdoğan's letter sends a message to the rest of Turkey, Russia's neighbors and NATO of Moscow's growing global stature, at a time when Russia has come under criticism for its aggressiveness in Ukraine and Crimea, and its support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, contrary to Turkey and the United States' interests.

Putin has Erdoğan sweating, Fiona Hill, the director of the Brooking Institution's Center on the United States and Europe, and a frequent commentator on Russian and Eurasian affairs, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday.

When asked how she would treat Erdoğan if she were Putin, Dr. Hill says, "I'd probably make him sweat some more."

"If I'm thinking in the Russian mentality, there is nothing necessarily to be gained for them," she says. "It's more to Erdoğan's gain to patch things up."

It's in Russia's better interest, says Hill, to act only after NATO meets in Warsaw next month, and as the impact of "Brexit" on the European Union becomes clearer. 

In the letter Erdoğan penned to Putin, the Kremlin, in a statement, said Erdoğan wrote, "I want to once again express my sympathy and deep condolences to the family of the Russian who died and say: 'I'm sorry."

Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdoğan, said the Turkish president expressed regret over the shooting, but added the letter was not an apology, according to Reuters.

The disagreement over the semantics of the letter is the latest in numerous, escalating disputes over Russian and Turkish attitudes toward Syria. The downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jet, part of Moscow's military campaign against Syrian rebels, was a manifestation of this dispute. Turkey said the plane entered Turkish airspace, ignored repeated warnings, and was fired at. Russia, for its part, denied these claims.

As the warplane's two pilots parachuted free from the jet, one was killed by Turkish rebels who were fighting in Syria, and a Russian marine was killed in the rescue operation to retrieve the other pilot.

The confrontation, which Putin said was a "treacherous stab in the back," was the materialization of Russia and Turkey's clashing interests in Syria. The Kremlin has supported Mr. Assad attempts to remain in power, while Turkey has support Syrian rebels, even permitting Turkmen to fight there. 

"The deployment of Russian attack planes to Syria at the end of September sparked several incidents that foreshadowed the trouble ahead between Russian and Turkish forces," notes Soli Özel, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, in an article published on the Center for American Progress's website. Repeated provocations by Russia "suggest that one goal of the Russian intervention was to impede Turkey's political and strategic success in Syria."

From the measures the Russians immediately took, it seems that Moscow was ready for such an incident. The Russian government imposed economic sanctions that hit the Turkish trade, construction, and tourism sectors, exchanges that had benefited Turkey immensely. Militarily, Russia announced that it would deploy its more advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Syria and continued to pound the positions of the Turkmen brigades that Turkey organized, trained, supplied with arms and money, and supports fully in their fight against the Assad regime. Effectively, the Russian air force obliterated these brigades both as part of Moscow's campaign to weaken the so-called moderate rebels in Syria and also to hit back at Turkey for the shoot down.

The Kremlin, however, did not stop its delivery of natural gas to Turkey, as the country is one of Russia's main customers. In fact, all of the sanctions it imposed not only hurt Turkey, but also benefited Russia. As Dr. Hill of the Brookings Institution notes, Russia was a main destination for Turkish foodstuffs. Once it closed its borders to these products, Russia was able to promote its agricultural sector of its economy, she says. The same was true for tourism. Once Moscow mandated visas to travel between the two countries, Russian tourist destinations such as Sochi and the newly annexed region of Crimea benefited.

Erdoğan's apology, and Putin's reluctance to accept it too quickly, has also allowed the Kremlin to flex its muscles on a global stage, says Michael Reynolds, professor in Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies, as well a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s program on the Middle East.

"Putin realizes he has a very strong hand," says Dr. Reynolds, who says he expects Ukraine, countries in the Caucuses, and even the United States to take notice. "It’s definitely a victory for Putin in boosting his stature in the region. People will be watching that – Erdoğan is not the type to apologize."

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