Saying sorry: What's behind Turkey's new thaw with Russia

In a shift, Prime Minister Erdoğan has expressed regret for shooting down a Russian fighter last year. What's less clear is whether his move signals a long-term shift in regional alliances.

Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Handout/Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016.

The diplomatic crisis moved fast last November when Turkey shot down a Russian jet fighter, accusing it of violating Turkish airspace during a bombing run in Syria. 

Russian tourism to Turkey’s popular Mediterranean resorts dropped 92 percent. Sanctions were imposed on Turkish agriculture. Top officials exchanged scathing and uncompromising rhetoric.

President Vladimir Putin declared that Turkey's “ruling clique” had carried out a “cynical war crime,” and vowed: “We will keep remembering what they did. And they will keep regretting it." 

But last week, after several back-and-forth gestures, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to Mr. Putin expressing regret for the shoot-down – using the words “I’m sorry,” according to the Kremlin. And almost as quickly as the crisis began, reconciliation got under way as part of a broader Turkish charm offensive that includes Israel and even Egypt.

At stake are more than thousands of sunbathing Russians. The new Turkish pragmatism aims to ease the country's isolation and defuse the multitude of tensions it faces in the region – even as it dreams, like Russia, of creating loose regional alliances that will serve its own interests. Mr. Erdoğan says the reconciliation steps are “based on the win-win principle” for all sides.

But the question is whether Turkey’s bid to restore friendships is tactical or strategic, even as it marks by most accounts diplomatic progress in a neighborhood torn by terrorism and sectarianism.

Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, sees clear-eyed realism at work. Turkey’s “change of heart,” he says, is due to economic challenges and “the fact that Turkey’s ability to influence the government in Syria has been effectively checkmated by Russia – and its [own] regional isolation.”  

Turkey and Russia still hold diametrically opposed views about the fate of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad – Erdoğan wants him gone and backs anti-Assad rebels, while Russia has committed military forces to keep Mr. Assad in power.

So long as “those [Syria] objectives are mutually exclusive, there is very little likelihood of a genuine reconciliation,” says Mr. Hakura.

Yet Turkish state television lingered over a meeting of Turkish-Russian foreign ministers last week, as if to show Turkey back in the diplomatic game. And pro-government media are talking up a face-to-face meeting between Erdoğan and Putin that could come within weeks. The moves seem to be further realization of a promise from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who said in May that Turkey would “increase the number of friends we have and decrease the number of enemies.”

The view from Russia

The view from Russia may be more committed, and aimed at a more strategic regional adjustment.

Russia is “going deeply” into this reconciliation, and Putin’s decision to meet Erdoğan so quickly “means Putin believes there are serious grounds to achieve serious things,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta in Moscow.

Russia, he says, wants Turkey's help to limit NATO presence in the Black Sea, and is likely trying to take advantage of a NATO ally that has been “given the cold shoulder” by the West and America, on issues from European Union membership to Turkey’s crisis with Russia. Turkey also has been alienated by US backing for certain Kurdish factions fighting the self-declared Islamic State in Syria – including American special forces units who were photographed fighting alongside and wearing the insignia of a Kurdish group deemed “terrorists” by Ankara. 

“Russian intentions are clear: Russia wants Turkey to be a very important partner in the Middle East, like Israel, like Tehran and Turkey, all together under Russian auspices,” he says. “I mean, nations that barely talk to each other, but all friends of Russia, and acting together under Russian auspices, pushing the Americans out and creating a new order in the Middle East.”

Turkey also may harbor interest in joining with fellow Sunni nations and Israel to push back the influence of Iran.

The US and the Saudis – which, like Turkey, back anti-Assad factions in Syria – pushed hard for Turkey to reconcile with Israel, which it did last week, six years after Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish citizens on the aid ship Mavi Marmara as it tried to break the Gaza blockade.

“That would give a counterbalance to the increasing power of Russians and Iranians, siding with the Shiites in the northern part of the Middle East, so there can be a ‘Sunni crescent’ of some sort, supported by Israel, and mainly anti-Iranian,” says Ersin Kalaycioğlu, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

Such a deal might also help wean Turkey off Russian gas. Israel’s newly found gas reserves might help Turkey diversify, giving Turkey a “bargaining chip at the table with Russia” and giving Russia another reason to swiftly reconcile, “to undermine any cozy [energy] deal between Turkey and Israel, says Professor Kalaycioğlu. 

“So there are multiple calculations and multiple layers here, pushing all these countries together, as quickly as possible,” he says.

How lasting will this charm offensive be? Hakura sees a direct link between Turkey’s foreign policy and its domestic politics.

In the years after 2002, when Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pursued a reformist political agenda at home, Turkey’s foreign policy was “balanced and flexible,” he says.

In recent years, “Erdoğan’s domestic confrontational politics was reflected in terms of antagonism, hostility, and abrasiveness abroad,” says Hakura. That domestic hard line has not eased. “That indicates clearly that Erdoğan’s foreign policy changes are ... not a genuine change of heart.”  

Still, pro-government columnists are enthusing about changes in Turkish diplomacy that could “signal a new balance of power," writes Yahya Bostan, in the Daily Sabah. Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, he suggests, “are slowly moving to form an alliance of stability in the Middle East.”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter @peterson__scott 

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