Vladimir Putin hailed the restoration of what he called “full format” relations between Russia and Turkey after meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 3.
“Some time ago our bilateral ties, as is well known, were tested. Now we can say with certainty that the recovery process in Russo-Turkish ties is complete," Putin told a news conference. "We are getting back to normal partner interaction.”
The talks were billed as focused on the situation in Syria, with the Russian leader advancing Moscow’s efforts to establish peacekeeper-secured buffer or “de-escalation” zones amid the conflict.
But it was also the first meeting between the two leaders since Erdogan narrowly triumphed in an April 16 referendum paving the way for a powerful executive presidency. Some EU member states have responded to the victory by pointing out that Erdogan’s new sweeping powers are not in line with Turkey’s previously expressed aspirations to accede into the European bloc, but there was no such hesitation from Putin who used the meeting to once again congratulate Erdogan on his victory in the popular poll and promote the Moscow-Ankara axis.
Turkey and Russia experienced a nine-month crash in bilateral ties after Turkish fighter planes shot down a Russian fighter-bomber on the Syrian border in late 2015. Putin and Erdogan have now reached a modus vivendi over Syria and are rebuilding bilateral trade and investment links.
“Mr President [Erdogan] and I adhere to the viewpoint that the Syrian conflict can be settled exclusively by political and diplomatic means,” Putin told the news conference. Russia and Turkey could together “change the destiny of the whole region”, added Erdogan, who last met Putin in Moscow in March.
The last-minute scheduling of the latest meeting indicated that the presidents wanted to discuss the Syrian conflict as a matter of urgency before Erdogan meets US President Donald Trump and attends the Nato summit in Brussels on May 16-17. A day earlier, Putin also met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi to discuss Syria and other issues.
Perhaps with an eye on what Putin might offer Erdogan, Merkel on May 3 made conciliatory comments towards Ankara, saying despite reservations over the future of post-referendum Turkey, the EU should not push away such an important partner. Erdogan on May 2 threatened to say “goodbye” to Brussels unless it opened new chapters in Turkey’s accession process, an issue for now the EU is clearly dodging.
The Turkish president arrived in Sochi intent on removing the last obstacles to restoring full trade ties with Russia and enabling the full normalisation of relations. Encouragingly for Turkey, once the meeting with Putin was over, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich announced that Russia will resume grain exports to Turkey within the next few days after resolving issues, such as prohibitively high tariffs, with Ankara that had been restricting supplies, Reuters reported. However, Dvorkovich also reportedly said that some Russian restrictions on tomato imports from Turkey would remain in place “in some form” for the next three to five years.
On leaving Turkey for Russia, Erdogan, according to TASS, remarked: “If we want to reach $100bn in trade turnover, we need to immediately lift all these restrictions. We would like this to happen and together with Mr Putin we will be making great efforts to solve current issues and return relations to previous levels.” Turkey is seeking to “balance trade and economic cooperation with Russia” as the import and export balance is still in Russia’s favour, he added, while also calling for visa restrictions to be lifted for the efficient development of ties.
Special attention was also paid at the Sochi encounter to Nato member Turkey’s request to negotiate the acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system, which has been under discussion since last winter and is agreed in principle, although pricing remains unresolved. “Military and technical cooperation was discussed in a positive tone,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The presidents also looked at oil and gas cooperation, and the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey.
It was further confirmed after the Putin-Erdogan talks that Russia is to launch a joint investment fund with Turkey with funds of up to $1bn.
Moscow, Putin also noted, stood ready to help Turkey improve anti-terrorist security measures at its tourist resorts, hugely popular with Russians prior to the falling out between Russia and Turkey which saw the Russians introduce tight restrictions on charter flights to Turkish airports.
Syria still complicated
The situation in Syria remains complicated because while Russia, Turkey, and Iran have been brokering Syria peace talks in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran are major military supporters of Syria’s ruling regime, while Turkey backs some rebel groups trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The proposed Syrian buffer zone issue also featured in Putin’s telephone discussions with Trump on May 2 as the two leaders agreed to boost efforts to resolve the six-year conflict and jointly fight terrorism. “As far as I understand the US administration supports these ideas,” the Russian leader said.
The Russian initiative envisages the creation of four de-escalation zones patrolled by forces that could include troops from Russia, Turkey and Iran. The areas would be established in the northwestern Idlib province, the western Homs province, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus, and southern Syria. The Syrian opposition wants United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed, although Damascus is reportedly rejecting that idea.
At their meeting, Erdogan invited Putin to attend a summit of the Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) in Istanbul on May 22. Putin responded that Russia will send an appropriate delegation.
TASS reported Putin as saying in the press conference following his meeting with Erdogan that Russia and Turkey will hold the “Cross Year of Culture and Tourism in 2019”.
Asked about prospects for a visa-free travel agreement with Turkey, he reportedly responded: "We should improve coordination between our special services in the wake of the terror threat. However, we realise that there are some Turkish citizens who regularly enter Russia on business. And we are ready to introduce special, more liberal regulations for them than for [other] citizens coming to our country."