Russia’s unrealistic expectations of Turkey

We are as unlikely to see an unconditional apology from Erdogan, about anything, as we are from Putin

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday made his most conciliatory comments yet on his military’s downing of a Russian warplane: “I’m really saddened by the incident. We wish it had never happened, but it happened. I hope something like this doesn’t happen again.” This fell short of the apology Russia has been seeking, but it is likely to be as close to one as Moscow will get.

The ambiguity in Erdogan’s wording must have been deliberate. It could either be interpreted as sadness that his country shot down the warplane, or that by allegedly violating Turkish airspace and ignoring repeated warnings, it forced his military to act.

The choice of wording was likely an attempt to placate Russia - its second-largest trading partner and source of tourists - while not being seen as capitulating in the eyes of Turks, who have become increasingly angry at Moscow’s heavy bombing of areas in Syria that are predominantly populated by their ethnic Turkmen kin.

Russia’s actions since Erdogan’s expression of sadness indicate that it wants a clear, unreserved apology. However, this would undermine his insistence that Turkey was right to protect its sovereignty.

His critics have already jumped on his statement on Thursday that had Ankara known the plane was Russian, “maybe we would have warned it differently,” despite at least two Russian violations of Turkish airspace in October that elicited complaints and warnings from Ankara.

An apology would risk making Erdogan look weak in the eyes of a population that has just re-elected his party into power with a parliamentary majority. Like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, he enjoys and nurtures his reputation as a tough-talking strongman. We are as unlikely to see an unconditional apology from Erdogan, about anything, as we are from Putin.


“We hope that the issue between us and Russia doesn’t escalate any further, become corrosive and have dire consequences in the future,” Erdogan said on Saturday. However, Moscow decreed sanctions on Turkey just hours later.

We are as unlikely to see an unconditional apology from Erdogan, about anything, as we are from Putin

Sharif Nashashibi

They include a ban on some goods, and forbidding extensions of labor contracts for Turks working in Russia. The decree also calls for an end to chartered flights from Russia to Turkey, and to Russian tourism companies selling vacation packages that would include a stay in Turkey.

Moscow had already taken retaliatory measures prior to the decree, including warning citizens against travelling to Turkey, suspending a visa-free travel regime from Jan. 1, cancelling a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, leaving Turkish trucks stranded at the border, and confiscating large quantities of Turkish food imports.

Arguably the most dangerous and strategically counter-productive step so far has been Moscow’s cutting of military contacts. Since it has intensified its bombing of areas along the Syrian-Turkish border, and says it will continue to do so despite the downing of its plane, bilateral military contacts are necessary to ensure that such an incident is not repeated.


In a bid to restore relations, Erdogan on Saturday renewed a call to meet with Putin in Paris on the sidelines of the Global Climate Summit on Monday. However, as of Sunday Putin had not responded, with his foreign affairs adviser saying: “We have seen that the Turkish side hasn’t been ready to offer an elementary apology over the plane incident.”

If Putin were to spurn such a meeting, this would indicate that he values political point-scoring over the settlement of an issue that has severely strained ties that are mutually important, particularly in the fields of tourism, trade and energy. Holding the meeting would not necessarily resolve the issue (though it would present the best opportunity to do so), but snubbing it would be seen as an unwillingness to even try.

Ankara may take this as a sign that its overtures have only emboldened an intransigent Moscow. Turkey may then stop taking further conciliatory steps and blame Russia for the impasse. However, whether such a meeting takes place or not, a genuine restoration of ties will need to include tackling the issue of Russian bombardment of Syrian Turkmen, as well as a mutually face-saving formula over the plane-downing.

Putin has domestic backing for his tough stance, but though he will wish for an eventual resolution, he seems to be seeking maximum gains before he decides to bury the hatchet. However, he is in danger of over-playing his hand. This will not only be to the detriment of both countries, but it could further intensify the Syrian conflict as both Ankara and Moscow increase their support for opposing sides.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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