Debates: With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing his regrets for downing a Russian jet close to the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015, it remains to be seen if this move will improve Moscow-Ankara relations.

Turkey's President Recep Erdogan addresses people at his palace in Ankara, June 27, 2016. Photo: AP

On June 27 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent an official apology to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the downing of a Russian jet close to the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015. This move provoked debates both in Russia and abroad about the real motives behind Erdogan’s apology and its implications for Moscow-Ankara relations.

“Erdogan's personal, full and complete apology is what was needed to fix the Turkey-Russia relationship. Reason has finally prevailed,” wrote Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin.

While some Russian media and the Kremlin framed Turkey’s move as a personal apology to Putin, Turkish experts and officials highlighted that Erdogan expressed regrets (not apologies) to the relatives of the Russian pilot, who was killed as a result of the downing of the jet.

According to the Kremlin, Erdogan’s letter clearly also indicates that Turkey’s president is seeking to improve relations with Russia and alleviate tensions. Initially, the Russian media reported that Ankara was ready to provide compensation to Moscow for the damage that resulted from the downing of the jet. However, the next day, Turkish authorities denied this information and refused to pay compensation to Russia.

In response to Erdogan’s letter, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that it is too early to say whether Moscow and Ankara will be able to normalize their relations within the span of just a few days. 

These stances – both from Russia and Turkey – complicate the situation and put the prospect of improving the Russian-Turkish relationship in limbo. To understand the motives behind the Turkish president’s move and determine whether it will really alleviate the tensions between the countries, Russia Direct interviewed Russian, Turkish and American pundits.

Robert Freedman, visiting professor, Johns Hopkins University, Department of Political Science

Erdogan has finally realized that his foreign policy had reached a dead end, as he was isolated in the region and left with Iran and Qatar as his only friends. For this reason he undertook a reconciliation with Israel — a process that began in December 2015, in the aftermath of Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian plane.

It should be noted that the Israeli-Turkish agreement, announced this week, did not include what Erdogan had said he wanted — the ending of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Thus he had to back down on Israel, and his decision on Russia also reflects a major back down.

It should also be noted that Turkey’s economy has been hard-hit by the rupture of relations with Russia, especially tourism, as the major tourist center of Antalya has been badly hurt. So, too, has Russia’s economy been hurt. 

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, on the slippery slope to direct confrontation"

Given the continuing EU sanctions, and Russia’s ban on EU agricultural exports, regaining access to Turkey’s agricultural exports would certainly be helpful to Russian consumers. Russia has already made a gesture to Turkey by inviting a Turkish representative to a Black Sea conference, and while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow several weeks ago, Putin said he did not oppose the resumption of Turkish-Israeli relations and that it was a good thing for countries to reconcile.

This might also have been seen as a signal to Erdogan. Finally, Putin may be looking for a diplomatic solution for the morass in Syria, and for this, Turkey could be helpful. Given all of these considerations, a slow reconciliation between Russia and Turkey would appear quite possible.

Volkan Özdemir, chairman of the Ankara-based Institute for Energy Markets and Policies (EPPEN), instructor in the Program of Eurasian Studies at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University

First of all, Erdogan apologized to the family of the dead pilot, not to Putin and not for the downing of the Russian plane. This means that Turkey is still insisting that the plane had violated its air space.

Secondly, we can infer that an interim formula was found for Erdogan: He did not want to openly apologize to the Russian government but, nevertheless, he made an apology statement. Why? It is because Ankara and, specifically, Erdogan, want reconciliation with Moscow. Turkish foreign policy is in crisis, especially in the Middle East, and the situation is not sustainable.

It is not a coincidence that Erdogan's apology and Turkish reconciliation with Israel occurred at the same time. This is a clear step from the Turkish side. However, will this move be enough for Russia? This is the main question and it is still not clear. I do believe that Turkish-Russian relations had begun to deteriorate before the plane incident. And this deterioration is related to the Syrian crisis, and the initiator was Moscow.

Since the Russian side broke off the relationship, one can predict that Moscow will only reestablish bilateral relations if it wants to help. So the real rapprochement depends on Russia, not Turkey.

Lastly, I think a balanced and new form of the Turkish-Russian relationship is needed, and this is in the interests of both countries. However, the bilateral relations cannot be upgraded to their previous level. Now the ball is in Moscow's court, it will determine the future and most probably the Kremlin will be asking for new concessions from the Turkish side, such as [reinvigorating] the Turkish Stream pipeline.

Alexander Sotnichenko, Ph.D., political analyst, expert on Turkey and the Middle East

Erdogan’s recent apology to Russia results from the fact that Turkey has found itself in political isolation over the last few years. Ankara’s policies towards Syria and, more broadly, in the Middle East, have failed. Turkey’s active support of revolutionary movements from Libya to Syria became a big failure. Instead of establishing pro-Turkish Islamic democratic regimes, the authorities of those countries, which faced the Arab Spring, found their countries in tatters.

In Syria, official Damascus keeps control over the majority of the population, while the Turkish-backed opposition turns out to have been involved in terrorist movements and, in fact, didn’t succeed at all on the battleground. Moreover, the Syrian crisis seriously worsened the relations between Turkey and Iran, which had been one of the major economic partners of Ankara for a long period of time.   

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Iranians support the current Syrian leadership and raise eyebrows at Ankara’s links with the Syrian opposition movements. Turkish-American relations are also in crisis. Washington determined its allies in the region and now pins its hopes on the Kurds, which seek to create their own autonomy in the Northern Syria. This poses a direct threat to Turkey, because, unlike Iran’s Kurds, the Syrian ones are close to the Turkish Kurds ethically, linguistically and, most importantly, ideologically.

Remarkably, it was Erdogan who became one of the main initiators of the Turkish-Russian economic rapprochement, which was severely hampered in the course of the political conflict between Ankara and Moscow. The pressure on the Turkish government might come from those businessmen close to the authorities – including the owners of empty beaches, construction firms, light industry entrepreneurs, lobbyists for new gas agreements, all of whom have direct interest in cooperation with Russia. They may have encouraged the Turkish government to improve relations with Russia. 

It remains to be seen what response from Moscow will come. Hopefully, this response will be favorable. But, anyway, currently, in such difficult times, Turkey sends a signal that it is ready to come up with a series of compromises in foreign policy issues. Russia should take advantage of this opportunity.

Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels

Erdogan's letter to Putin is part of the foreign policy realignment that has gathered pace after the cabinet change in Ankara. Turkey is in the midst of a recalibration of its ambitious and ultimately ill-fated foreign policy launched after the onset of the Arab Spring.

Also read: "Downing of Russian jet: Why Turkey puts at stake its relations with Kremlin"

This foreign policy spearheaded by the former Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has tarnished Turkey's position and influence in the region. An effort for recalibration had already been initiated in 2014. This effort has now peaked with the normalization deal with Israel and the diplomatic opening to Moscow.

There is also an economic rationale. The economic sanctions imposed by Russia have started to impact the Turkish economy. Most affected has been the tourism industry, which is also ailing because of a sharp drop in Western tourists.

As a result of this outreach, we are likely to see a relative amelioration in the bilateral relationship, which will translate into more friendly rhetoric. But it is still difficult to foresee any real convergence on regional and foreign policy issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria. The gap is just too wide.

Orhan Gafarli, expert at the Ankara Political Center 

Erdogan's letter to the Kremlin is a diplomatic gesture, which means that Turkey just expresses regrets for the incidents, which killed the Russian pilot. It is an attempt to offer a compromise, because Ankara is well aware that Russia will never admit that it violated the Turkish border. The tensions with Russia affected the Turkish economy and Erdogan was ready to offer a geopolitical trade-off to improve economic relations with Russia.

For Russia, it is important to resume dialogue with Turkey before the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw. After all, Turkey might contribute to resolving the Syrian crisis and maintaining security in the Black Sea region. The very fact that Turkey expressed its condolences to Russia means that their relations might be improved, with the dialogue on the Syrian crisis resumed.

However, it will be very difficult to restore trust between Russian and Turkish leaders. After all, Turkey sees Russia as a country that can break relations at any moment and it will try to be more prudent from now onward. Anyway, Ankara will try to alleviate the mutual tensions and prevent the crisis in the Turkish-Russian relations from spinning out of control.

Aurel Braun, professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University

Given the acrimony between Russia and Turkey, at first blush it may seem surprising that Erdogan has now decided to personally apologize to President Putin. True, it was apparently an oblique apology which expressed sympathy, condolences and regret, but coming from the mercurial, ultranationalist Islamist leader of Turkey, who has relentlessly restricted democratic freedoms in his own country and continues to harshly condemn domestic and foreign opponents alike, it does seem to be a remarkable climb down.

Undoubtedly, Erdogan hopes for a very major improvement in Moscow-Ankara relations that will help him domestically as well as regionally. There are also possible opportunities for Russia to improve its own economic position by restoring full economic relations with Turkey as well as a chance to use Turkish help in trying to stabilize Syria and find a political solution in that country.

Nonetheless, as attractive as reconciliation may seem and despite the potential significant benefits, there are risks and problems. Undoubtedly, the Turkish apology can lead to alleviating some tensions but this is quite different from true reconciliation. To a significant degree the problem rests with Erdogan and his unlimited ambitions. He has evidently recognized that the political constellation has and is changing in pivotal ways but this does not mean that he has given up his long-term ambitions, both domestic and regional.

He remains an exceedingly difficult and unpredictable partner. His increasingly dictatorial rule, again, means that there is an inherent domestic instability, one that he may at some point wish to resolve or compensate for with some risky foreign adventure. In Syria itself, we should recall, Erdogan has played a double game where he has (as Vladimir Putin rightly accused him) at times supported the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) while simultaneously drawing heavily on NATO support.

He has also shown himself masterful at exploiting the fears and weaknesses of the EU when it comes to refugees and he has the capacity to unleash new waves of refugees that would create further regional instability that in turn could complicate matters for Moscow.

[Read the full version of Braun's comment here]