President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Russia this week as part of efforts to rebuild ties shattered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last year just as Turkey’s relations with traditional allies the United States and Europe show increasing strain amid Ankara’s crackdown following a failed coup.
Tuesday’s visit to St. Petersburg for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be Mr. Erdogan’s first foreign trip since the abortive July 15 putsch, in which a group of renegade Turkish military officers attempted to seize power using fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in a night of violence that left more than 270 people dead.
Both Turkey and Russia, which once described themselves as strategic partners, have been hurt by their roughly seven-month rupture in relations- Russia’s ban on the sale of package tours to Turkey and an agricultural import embargo dealt a painful blow to the Mediterranean country, while Moscow also paid a price as the spat shelved a much-touted Russian natural gas pipeline to Turkey and other lucrative projects.
So both Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin are interested in mending the rift and reviving economic and trade ties, a process that began in June following Ankara’s apology for shooting down the Russian plane, which had been running bombing sorties in neighbouring Syria.
“This will be a historic visit, a new beginning. In the talks with my friend Vladimir, I believe, a new page in our relations will be turned. Our countries have much to do together,” Mr. Erdogan said in an interview with the Russian state news agency Tass.
The Russian bomber’s downing in November, which Mr. Putin described as a “treacherous stab in the back,” came amid boiling tension over Syria, where Moscow and Ankara backed opposing sides in the conflict. Neither country has fundamentally altered its stance on Syria, and the issue could still prove a sticking point.
“This is an alliance of convenience, not a strategic relationship. It is more of a transactional relationship driven by converging interests and challenging circumstances,” said Fadi Hakura, associate fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think tank in London.
“I would compare it to someone having a viral infection who immediately takes paracetamol to lower the temperature, which rapidly declines but precipitously starts fighting back up again,” Hakura said. “What we have seen with Turkey in this rapid change, rapid swings in its relationship with Russia from breakdown to reconciliation, indicates that the relationship is still not healthy, despite appearances.”
The visit comes as Turkey’s relations with traditional allies falter over Ankara’s post-coup crackdown, which has seen nearly 18,000 people detained or arrested and tens of thousands suspended or fired from their jobs on suspicion of being associated with the movement of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The government says Mr.Gulen, a former Erdogan ally living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, orchestrated the coup, and has demanded his extradition. Washington has asked for evidence of the cleric’s involvement and says the extradition process must be allowed to take its course. Mr. Gulen himself denies any involvement.
The issue has soured relations, with members of the government implying the U.S. could have been behind the coup leading American officials have publicly denied that.
Turkey has also blasted its European allies for expressing alarm over the scope of its crackdown. Ankara has complained the West has shown a lack of support for a democratically elected government which survived a violent attempt to overthrow it, and Turkish officials have publicly traded barbs with Germany, Austria and Italy as well as the European Union.