After talking a blue streak about using the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to prevent the Black Sea from turning into a “Russian lake,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s June 27 letter of “condolences” to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the downing of a Russian fighter jet took many by surprise. Yet in the wake of the fatal June 28 terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, it appears that Turkey now believes it needs cooperation more than confrontation with Moscow.
The two broke off diplomatic relations after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, leading to the death of one Russian pilot. Moscow long had demanded an apology, while Ankara refused to apologize for, in its words, defending its own border. Consequently, Russia, a prime trade partner, put a freeze on energy projects with Turkey, banned Turkish fruit-and-vegetable imports and restricted tourism.
But, now, after speaking with Erdoğan by phone, Putin told his government on June 29 that talks on reconciliation would begin.
The terrorist attack on Istanbul’s main international airport, which left some 41 dead and scores wounded, appears to have added momentum to this process.
"Both sides underlined the necessity to intensify international cooperation in the fight against [the] common terrorist threat," Russia’s state-run TASS news agency described the two leaders as saying.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Russian upper house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, noted on Facebook that Ankara’s diplomatic overtures to both Russia and Israel, another former friend, sparked the attack on Atatürk Airport, the agency reported.
The first opportunity for a public display of unity on this front comes on July 1, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will meet at the July 1 Black Sea Economic Cooperation summit in the Russian coastal city of Sochi; an event to which Turkey was invited four days before Erdoğan’s letter to Putin, Turkish news reports.
"Without cooperation between all countries in the world, including Russia, defeating this evil is impossible," Ramazan Can, the head of Turkey's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, was reported as saying of the terrorist threat both Turkey and Russia face from Islamic militants.
It’s all proving an abrupt change from the rhetoric of just a few weeks ago.
Earlier this month, a senior Turkish official, briefing foreign journalists on condition of anonymity, stated that “We see the Russians as a threat, it goes without saying.”
Given the imperfect relations with Moscow after it sent troops to Turkey’s southern neighbor, Syria, to back President Bashar al-Assad, he continued, “there is nothing wrong” with asking NATO to move into the Black Sea to strengthen member-state Turkey’s defenses.
In May, Erdoğan, speaking at a Balkan conference, claimed that he had told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that “The Black Sea has almost become a Russian lake. If we don’t act now, history will not forgive us.’”
Predicting a return to the Cold War, analysts this month told EurasiaNet.org that they saw no chance for a Turkish-Russian reconciliation.
Yet not all agreed that the call for NATO to move into the Black Sea meant a real change in Turkey’s past distaste for a NATO presence in the Sea.
“What Erdoğan says and does on the Black Sea must be seen as an effort to make up with Russia,” commented the former chairperson of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, who now heads the Stratim think-tank outside Ankara. “He is stuck and needs to normalize ties with Moscow. He uses the Black Sea issue as a tool to bring Putin back to the table.”
If so, Erdoğan appears to have succeeded.
"We expect relations to be normalized in areas of politics, trade and energy," announced presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın on June 29. Already, Gazprom has announced that it may unfreeze “immediately” the Turkish Stream and South Stream mega-gas projects, which travel from Russia to Europe via Turkey, TASS said.
So far, what this means for Ankara’s appeal for more NATO in the Black Sea is not clear.
Erdoğan does not want to appear weak toward Moscow as he courts Turkish nationalist voters ahead of an expected referendum on extending his presidential powers. Ankara insists that he did not send Putin an apology.
Western observers no doubt will watch Turkey closely during the alliance’s July 8-9 summit in Warsaw.
The Turkish official above earlier stated that Ankara would likely back Romania’s expected calls at the summit for a greater military presence in the Black Sea. In April, the United States deployed two of its state-of-the- art F-22 Raptor jets to a Romanian airbase near the Black Sea. The deployment follows Russian jets buzzing a US warship in the area.
Russia earlier had warned about the Black Sea becoming a “NATO lake” and noted that it would respond in kind.
Yet even while beating the NATO tom-toms, Ankara may have been talking with Moscow. Citing unnamed diplomatic sources, Hürriyet Daily News columnist Murat Yetkin wrote on June 29 that Turkish businesspeople and intelligence service representatives have been making overtures to Moscow since early May.
On taking office later that month, Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, promised a reassessment of its strained relations with its neighbors, including Russia, and former allies. Aides close to the president make little secret of blaming Yıldırım’s predecessor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, for the present crisis with Moscow.
Neither the Kremlin nor Russia’s solidly pro-government mainstream media concede, of course, that Erdoğan’s NATO card exercised any influence on Moscow. Rather, Russian commentators now attribute Erdogan’s missive to the need to tame domestic political opposition and the falloff in Turkey’s economic growth, particularly in the Russian-heavy tourism sector.
Exports to Russia in January-February 2016 had slumped by 63 percent compared with the same period last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported this month. Both bankruptcies and unemployment are nudging upward, according to Reuters.
-- Turkey news editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.