ISTANBUL, TURKEY —
Turkey's president has reached out to his Russian counterpart, expressing regret for November’s downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter. There is rising expectation bilateral relations will be repaired, but mutual suspicions are expected to remain.
A letter expressing condolences from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Russian President Vladimir Putin coincides with Turkish authorities reopening a police investigation against a Turkish man blamed by Moscow for shooting and killing its pilot as he parachuted from his downed plane.
Until now Erdogan has strongly defended the downing of the Russian bomber, which Ankara accuses of violating Turkish airspace while operating from a Syrian airbase.
Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper and Al Monitor website, said the Turkish president is responding to Russian political and economic sanctions placed on Turkey following the bomber's downing.
"I do not think its full apology, but there seems to be remarks there, that amounts to an apology in a sense. I think he is throwing in the towel basically. Turkey has sustained a lot political and economic damage and also damage to its security concerns as a result of this tiff," said Idiz.
The sanctions include a ban on importing Turkish food produce and Russian tourists visiting Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Erdogan will speak by telephone with Putin later this week, in what is reported as the first direct conversation between the leaders since the November downing of the bomber.
Ankara has also accused Moscow of arming Kurdish rebel group the PKK with surface to air missiles, a charge Russia denies.
Moscow is demanding an apology from Ankara and compensation for the family of the killed Russian pilot.
In a sign Moscow could be receptive to Turkish overtures, it has invited Turkey’s foreign minister to a regional conference it is hosting Friday.
But political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said deep distrust and suspicion of Erdogan will remain in Moscow.
"Putin is really afraid of Erdogan’s ambitions to become a Sunni Muslim leader, and to mobilize the Sunni Muslim world because Russia has a substantial Islam minority. So he might take Erdogan seriously at his words and consider him as a threat to the unity of mother Russia," said Yesilada.
Syria too remains a point of tension with Ankara and Moscow backing opposite sides in the civil war. Differences also exist over Ukraine and the Caucasus.
Before the bomber downing, Ankara and Moscow successfully compartmentalized those differences, allowing bilateral relations to flourish, especially economically.
But Idiz said those days are over.
"Once the vase is broken, the cracks will show no matter what. So the magic that we had in Turkish Russian relations, which was able to sustain many, many crisis, but nevertheless maintain the good ties, is over. That magic has gone now, and now these ties are based on necessity rather than any mutual love or sentiment or anything like that," said Idiz.
Erdogan and his government appear eager to end what is widely seen as Turkey’s isolation in the region. The Turkish and Israeli government ratified an agreement Tuesday to restore full diplomatic relations.