Europe News

Turkey and Russia's relationship status? It's complicated


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his on-then-off-then-on-again ally, Russia President Vladmir Putin, signaling the latest restoration of diplomatic and economic relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Erdogan met Putin in St Petersburg on Tuesday with talks focusing on re-building trade, energy, economic and military ties, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, as well as discussions about the countries' military action in Syria where a civil war continues.

At a joint news conference after the meeting, Erdogan announced that Turkey and Russia would reinstate their annual bilateral trade target of $100 billion, according to Reuters. Erdogan also said talks about reinstating charter flights between the two countries would be accelerated.

Putin told reporters after the meeting that Russia and Turkey shared a common goal of resolving the crisis in Syria — and that it would be possible to sort out differences in how to handle it, according to Reuters.

The meeting marked the first time the leaders have met since their dramatic falling-out over a downed Russian fighter jet, which the Turks alleged had entered its airspace, last November which led to the deaths of the two Russian pilots.

The incident blew apart the generally harmonious relations between Turkey and Russia with the latter imposing sanctions against Turkey and accusing it of helping the militant group Islamic State.

Russia also threatened to cancel its multibillion-dollar "Turkish Stream" natural gas pipeline that would run from Russia to Turkey, and potentially the rest of Europe, as well as its involvement in the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in the country.

However, on Tuesday, Erdogan told reporters that Putin wanted to build the pipelines quickly, according to Reuters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Konstantin Palace, August,9, 2016 in Strenla, Saint Petersburg.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Frosty relations prior to Tuesday's meeting saw the number of Russian visitors to Turkey, a country which relies heavily on its tourist trade, drop.

In June, however, the Kremlin announced that Erdogan had apologized for the downing of the Russian jet.

A statement released by the Russian government announced that Turkey had conveyed that it "never had the desire or deliberate intention of shooting down the Russian federation's plane" and that it was prepared to do everything possible to restore friendly ties.

The revival of mutually-beneficial grand energy projects like Turkish Stream is expected to play a large part of restoring relations that are lucrative for both countries; Turkey was Gazprom's second largest customer after Germany in 2015.

Billion-dollar deals

The defrosting of relations and the St Petersburg get-together came at an opportune moment for the two leaders.

Both Putin and Erdogan share a similar "strongman" stance towards leadership and both have overseen a revival in conservative, nationalist domestic politics. In addition, both have an awkward relationship with their mutual neighbor, Europe.

Erdogan's trip to Russia marks his first foreign trip since an attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15. The coup failed and since then, Erdogan has led a crackdown on tens of thousands of alleged anti-government "plotters." In turn, Europe has warned Turkey not to use the coup attempt as an excuse to restrict civil liberties and political opponents. It has been particularly perturbed at calls for the death penalty to be reinstated for those accused of treachery against Erdogan.

On Sunday, Erdogan reiterated at a vast rally in support of his leadership in Istanbul that he would back the return of the death penalty if there was enough popular and parliamentary support for such a move. The EU has told Turkey that it can forget any aspirations for EU membership if capital punishment is reinstated, however.

Vested interests

The thawing of relations with Russia has raised eyebrows in the West as it comes at a time of strained relations between Turkey and its European neighbors.

With relations with the west looking shaky at best, Vadim Nikitin, assistant director of consultancy Stroz Friedberg told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" that there was an element of symbolism to the timing of the meeting with Russia but that, ultimately, the meeting was about vested interests.

"I think this is Turkey showing the West that 'we are not just dependent on this one relationship, we have options, we have other suitors if need be but both countries are wily old operators, they are long-standing powers and they know this game well. As (former British prime minister) Lord Palmerston said, there are permanent friendships in politics, there are permanent interests, and Russia and Turkey know this well."

"Turkey needs good relationships with Russia on energy," he added.

"Turkey needs to talk with Russia on the security situation not only in Syria but also in the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and finally, both Turkey and Russia need economic cooperation on tourism, exports and imports and this is the real meat of today's conversation."

For its part, Turkey has insisted that its friendship with Russia does not mean it is turning its back on the West or its place in NATO, the military alliance initially set up to counter Russian power. This has led one analyst to believe that Turkey is strategically treading a fine line between the west and Russia.

"The opportunist Russia-Turkey convergence will raise renewed concerns about Ankara's western ties but will not lead to a departure from NATO," Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, said in a note Tuesday, adding that relations would only slowly return to normal.

"Russian economic sanctions will be lifted only gradually. (Although) a commitment to restart bilateral energy projects such as the Turkish Stream gas pipeline is likely (today)," he added.

Although there had been "a lot of hyperbole and psycho-drama" surrounding the meeting, Nikitin said, it marked a return to more normalized relations between the two giant powers to the east of Europe.

"What this is, first and foremost, is an attempt to return to the 'status quo ante (bellum)' ('the state existing before the war') and that can only be a good thing," he said.

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