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'Putin's phonecall meant a lot to me' - Turkey and Russia's strongmen leaders kiss and make up

“We lived through a very complicated moment,” Putin said, referring to an incident last November when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Syrian border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkey's president Recep Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St Petersburg today.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkey's president Recep Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St Petersburg today.
Image: PA

THE LEADERS OF Russia and Turkey have buried the hatchet, pledging to restore the ‘Moscow-Ankara axis’ after almost a year of cool relations that at one point threatened war.

Russian president Vladimir Putin said Russian trade sanctions on Turkey would be phased out “step by step”.

“The priority is to get back to the pre-crisis level of co-operation,” he told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a summit in St Petersburg.

Their relations cooled sharply last November, when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Syrian border. It is Erdogan’s first foreign visit since an attempted coup last month.

He has since launched a far-reaching crackdown on the armed forces and other state institutions, and cast a shadow and over Turkey’s relations with its western Nato allies.

Psychologically important

Speaking in St Petersburg, Erdogan thanked Mr Putin, saying a call from the Russian leader after the coup “meant a lot psychologically”.

He said “the Moscow-Ankara friendship axis will be restored”.

After Turkey shot down the Su-24 jet in November, Russia imposed trade sanctions and suspended Russian package tours to Turkey.

Russia has now decided to resume those package tours, which represent an important source of income for Turkey’s tourist industry.

Russia Turkey Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference after talks with President Erdogan. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Complicated moment

At a press conference after the encounter, Putin said:

We lived through a very complicated moment in the relations between our states and we very much want, and I feel our Turkish friends want, to overcome the difficulties.

The authoritarian Russian leader insisted it would take “painstaking work” and “some time” to return to previous trade links. In a statement, he said:

I know I was one of the first to call you and give support about overcoming the internal political crisis caused by the attempted coup.

“I would like to repeat: it is our position of principle that we always stand up against any attempts to revert to unconstitutional actions.”

Both sides said they wanted to restart major energy projects hit by the crisis.

Russia Turkey Turkish president Recep Erdogan. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Erdogan said that he hoped Russian-Turkish relations would become “more robust” and stressed how important it was that Putin offered his support after the coup.

We will bring our relations back to the old level and even beyond, both sides are determined and have the necessary will.

The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by a Turkish F-16 over the Syrian border last fall saw a furious war of words between the mercurial leaders, that seemed to irrevocably damage burgeoning ties between the nations.

Moscow and Ankara were hurling unbridled insults at each other as recently as May.

Russia’s state-run television network attacked Mr. Erdogan as “deceitful” and “unrestrained” – while the Turkish leader accused Russia of engaging in “cheap slander.”

Yet the Kremlin never misses a chance to try to exploit the disagreements in the NATO alliance brought about by the US response to Turkey’s failed coup.

In a shock reversal late June, Putin accepted a letter expressing regret over the incident from Erdogan as an apology, and signalled Moscow would end measures against Turkish food imports and construction firms.

Russia Turkey Russian president Vladimir Putin. Source: AP/Press Association Images

There are fears in Western capitals that NATO-member Turkey could draw even closer to Moscow in the wake of the failed 15 July coup attempt.

Erdogan bluntly makes it clear he feels let down by the EU and the United States, whom many in the Turkish administration blame for the coup.

Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to phone Erdogan offering support after the coup attempt and shares none of the scruples of EU leaders about the ensuing crackdown.

Back to business?

Relations between Turkey and Russia – two powers vying for influence in the strategic Black Sea region and Middle East – have rarely been straightforward.

Before the plane downing crisis, Moscow and Ankara managed to prevent disputes on Syria and Ukraine harming strategic cooperation on issues like the TurkStream gas pipeline to Europe and a Russian-built nuclear power station in Turkey.

Those projects were all put on ice with trade between the two countries falling 43% in January-May this year to $6.1 billion and Turkey’s tourism industry seeing visitor numbers from Russia fall by 93%.

Russia Turkey Putin waits for Erdogan before their press conference today. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Now with Russia mired in an economic crisis due to Western sanctions over Ukraine and low oil prices along with Turkey’s outlook flagging, both men want to get business started again.

Erdogan said that he now wanted to see the TurkStream project “done as fast as possible”, while Putin said construction could start “in the nearest future”.

The Turkish leader also insisted that the two sides were once again targeting a very ambitious trade turnover of $100 billion by 2024.

Skirting Syria

The earlier uptick in relations between Turkey and Russia was built on a macho friendship between Putin and Erdogan, two combative leaders in their early 60s credited with restoring confidence to their nations in the wake of financial crises but also criticised for clamping down on human rights.

But after such a bitter dispute – which saw Putin accuse Erdogan of stabbing Russia in the back and profiting from an illegal oil trade with the Islamic State group – it will take a lot for the pair to reheat relations.

Russia Turkey Putin and Erdogan shake hands. Source: Alexander Zemlianichenko

The two strongmen leaders conspicuously skirted one major issue dividing them and that lay at the heart of their falling out – the war in Syria.

Putin and Erdogan said they would start discussing the conflict after the press conference, but the Russian leader insisted both sides were committed to finding a peaceful solution.

Russia is flying a bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad while Turkey is fiercely opposed to the Syrian leader.

Erdogan insisted in an interview with Russian media ahead of the talks that Assad must still go – a position opposed by Putin – but said that the conflict could now become the focus for renewed cooperation between the two sides.

- © AFP, 2016

Read: US says it was not involved in Turkey coup “full stop”

Read: Turkey: Erdogan cries on national television as 6,000 are rounded up and arrested

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