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Erdogan-Putin Animosity Hurting Turkey-Russia Relations

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrap up a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, Dec. 1, 2014, when they enjoyed more cordial relations.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrap up a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, Dec. 1, 2014, when they enjoyed more cordial relations.

Tentative steps have been taken in the past few weeks to try to ease tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which were strained when Turkish jets shot down a Russian bomber operating from a Syrian airbase in November.

A pro-government Turkish newspaper reported both countries had agreed to build monuments to those soldiers who died in each other's territory during the numerous conflicts over past centuries. Also, Moscow lifted a ban on flights to a key Turkish tourist resort.

Former Turkish Ambassador Murat Bilhan, an expert on Russian relations, said powerful mutual interests were driving rapprochement efforts.

"I am very optimistic that these relations will smooth," he said. "Russia needs Turkey because it's a big market for Russian goods and also Russian investments," particularly in the energy field. Also, he said, "Turkey needs Russia, because Turkey needs first of all Russian markets, Russian tourists, also construction. I do not think Turkey could give up" on relations with Russia.

Further impetus has been given to those rapprochement efforts with Turkish police detaining a Syrian Turkmen whom Moscow accuses of killing the pilot of its downed jet. Police reportedly questioned him about the shooting, but he has not been charged. Russia is demanding his prosecution.

No reciprocal moves

But although analysts say Ankara is eager to rebuild relations, and a senior Turkish official says the government has repeatedly reached out to Moscow, its overtures have not been reciprocated.

Carnegie Institute visiting scholar Sinan Ulgen said rapprochement efforts are likely to fail because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are trapped by their need to protect their strongman reputations.

"The few signs that we have seen of a normalization between Turkey and Russia are just weak signs so far," Ulgen said. "There is no reason to expect that normalization will happen anytime soon, given that the acrimony has also become quite personal between Erdogan and Putin, and they have both cornered one another, in a way. Putin is asking for an apology, an apology that obviously will not come from Erdogan."

A Western diplomat contended that the shooting down of the Russian plane by Turkish jets damaged Putin’s image as the region’s strongman. The diplomat warned that until the Russian leader can extract some kind of reciprocity, bilateral relations are not expected to improve significantly.

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