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Turkey and Russia reconciliation: A pipe dream or strained reality?

Ties between Turkey and Russia have been strained since a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian fighter bomber for violating Turkish airspace.

Menekse Tokyay

Published: Updated:

In an effort to restore broken ties with Russia, Turkey has been taking important steps to re-open a dialogue.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a message to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last Sunday to mark Russia's national day, and expressed his desire for improving relations to “their well-deserved level.” Earlier this month, Erdogan also expressed hope to improve ties with Russia, and grieved that bilateral relations were sacrificed over a so-called “pilot error.”

Turkey’s new Prime Minister Binali Yildirim - who pledged to “decrease the number of enemies and increase the number of friends in the region”- sent a letter to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, in which he underlined his hope for “restoring cooperation and relations between the two countries to a level that is necessary for the common interests of our peoples in the nearest future.”

Ties between Turkey and Russia have been strained since November 2015, when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian fighter bomber for violating Turkish airspace, an incident which was quickly followed by harsh trade sanctions and a tourism boycott ordered by the Kremlin.

Mutual trust?

Experts interviewed by Al Arabiya English emphasized that although the latest moves point to a promising path, mutual trust between the two countries seems unlikely to be restored immediately.

Kerim Has, an expert on Eurasian studies at Ankara-based think-tank USAK, told Al Arabiya English that “even though recent steps by Turkish authorities seem a credible sign for restoring ties,” Moscow remains cautious about fully acknowledging the process.

According to him, both parties should concentrate on mutual ‘trust-building’ measures as a first step, and a way to converge Ankara’s and Moscow’s ‘vital interests and top priorities’ on some crises in the region, specifically on Syria.

“Without a similar path to US-Russia rapprochement on Syrian crisis, the Turkish-Russian normalization process will be at stake,” he added.

Ankara’s efforts to warm ties have not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin. In a promising move, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Turkey Andrey Karlov attended an iftar at the Presidential Palace on June 15.

Still, Russia expects Turkey to apologize for the downed plane and to take the necessary steps to punish the perpetrators.

“In the following five to six months, I do not think that the apology and compensation can be accepted by Turkish authorities.

According to Oktay Tanrisever, an expert on Russian politics from Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, the recent messages between the two countries signal an interest in normalizing bilateral relations, but more should be done to meet the expectations of Moscow.

“The diplomats will probably work out a more specific roadmap for specifying the details of the settlement that will clear the way for the actual normalization process,” Tanrisever told Al Arabiya English.

“But, it is highly unlikely that both countries could reestablish the type of close relations that they enjoyed before the jet crisis, due to the resulting mistrust and trauma of the incident,” he added.

Experts underline that the only way to deescalate the bilateral crisis is an apology and compensation from Turkey, which is unlikely to occur in the short term. For this reason, Tanrisever thinks that the sides will probably concentrate on the energy projects and economic ties rather than diplomatic ties.

Opinions are divided on whether an eventual rapprochement between the Kremlin and Ankara would necessarily entail a softening of Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling and Russia’s policy in Syria, which has enabled Assad to remain in power.

According to Has, following the announcement of a joint ceasefire deal for Syria by Washington and Moscow in February, Turkey’s need to adjust its Syria policy to the realities on the ground has become a ‘must’ in that context.

However, Tanrisever doesn’t think that normalization of the bilateral relations will affect the ongoing positions on Syria.

“Ankara and Moscow will probably agree to disagree over Syria in the short-term, in order to compartmentalize bilateral and regional issues - as they have been doing for almost a decade,” he said.