Saint Petersburg: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan today looked to rebuild ties as they met for the first time since Ankara downed one of Moscow’s warplanes in November.
Erdogan’s visit to Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg is also his first foreign trip since the failed coup against him last month that sparked a purge of opponents and cast a shadow over Turkey’s relations with the West.
“Your visit today, despite a very difficult situation regarding domestic politics, indicates that we all want to restart dialogue and restore relations between Russia and Turkey,” Putin said after the two leaders shook hands.
Erdogan, who has said the trip represents a “new milestone”, told Putin that ties had entered a “very different phase” and thanked the Kremlin leader for his backing after the coup attempt.
The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by a Turkish F-16 over the Syrian border last fall saw a furious Putin slap economic sanctions on Turkey and launch a blistering war of words with Erdogan that seemed to irrevocably damage burgeoning ties.
But in late June, Putin surprisingly accepted a letter expressing regret over the incident from Erdogan as an apology and quickly rolled back a ban on the sale of package holidays to Turkey and signalled Moscow would end measures against Turkish food imports and construction firms.
Now in the wake of the failed July 15 coup attempt, there are fears in Western capitals that NATO-member Turkey could draw even closer to Moscow with Erdogan bluntly making it clear he feels let down by the United States and the European Union.
Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to phone Erdogan offering support after the coup attempt and shares none of the scruples of EU leaders about the ensuing crackdown.
In the latest sign of rocky relations with the West, Turkey’s justice minister on Tuesday warned that the United States will “sacrifice relations” unless it extradites Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankarafor the failed coup.
Relations between Turkey and Russia two powers vying for influence in the strategic Black Sea region and Middle East have historically not been straight forward.
Yet before the plane downing crisis, Moscow and Ankara managed to prevent disputes on Syria and Ukraine harming strategic cooperation on issues like the Turk Stream gas pipeline to Europe and a Russian-built nuclear power station in Turkey.
Those projects were all put on ice with trade between the two countries falling 43 per cent to USD 6.1 billion in January-May this year and Turkey’s tourism industry seeing visitor numbers from Russia fall by 93 per cent.
Now with Russia mired in economic crisis due to Western sanctions over Ukraine and low oil prices along with Turkey’s outlook flagging, both men want to get business started again.