Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 21, 2016
Will Turkish President be able to normalise relations with Russia?

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now appears to be working towards reformulating his country’s foreign policy towards breaking what seems to be growing distance from its neighbours and friends. The recent failed coup has brought to the fore some tensions in its domestic policy. However, President Erdogan had begun reformulating his foreign policy earlier, trying to mend ties with both Russia and Israel.

Russia-Turkey relations had suffered a major blow in November last year when the latter shot down an SU-24, claiming that the fighter jet had entered its air space in spite of several warnings. Denying Turkish allegations, Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed the entire episode as “a stab in the back” and a “huge mistake”.

As a retaliatory measure, Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey. Broadly, they included restrictions on imports of Turkish food (mainly imports of agricultural products, vegetables, and fruits), a ban on tourism to Turkey, and suspension of visa free travel. The sanctions also targeted charter air travel between the two countries and restricted the hiring of Turkish nationals in Russia. On the energy front, talks on the ambitious Turkish stream pipeline <1> were suspended. 

After indulging in a heated exchange of “war of words” for about six months, President Erdoğan initiated a reconciliatory move by sending a letter of regret over the shooting of the Russian jet to the Russian president. In the letter, he referred to Russia as “a friend and a strategic partner” with whom the Turkey would not want to spoil relations.  He also expressed his sympathy and condolences to the family of the Russian pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, whose death (while attempting to escape) had incensed Moscow even more than the downing of the plane. According to reports, Turkey has now also committed to initiating a criminal probe into the suspected "killer" (Turkish nationalist Alparslan Celik had claimed responsibility for the shooting) of the Russian pilot — another of Russia’s preconditions for reconciliation. If Erdoğan’s roundabout expression of condolences to the family of the pilot is considered, adequate by the Kremlin, then the only pre-condition unfulfilled will be the payment of compensation for the fighter jet and to the family of the pilot.

President Erdoğan’s gesture was significant and yielded the results it intended. A telephone conversation soon followed with Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan, reiterating their commitment to reinvigorating bilateral relations and fight terrorism jointly. (The commitment is significant at a time when terrorist attacks shook the Ataturk airport in Turkey). More significantly, the sanctions on Turkey are now lifted, initiating "the process of normalising general trade and economic ties.” In fact, the Turkish lira showed positive developments (2.9330 from 2.9430 against the USD) almost immediately after Kremlin announced removal of sanctions on Turkey. 

The rapprochement is good news for both sides, given the economic interdependence both the countries share. Energy sector forms the basis of Russo-Turkish relations; hence, the suspension of negotiations on the Turkish stream pipeline was a huge setback for both. Following the Putin-Erdoğan conversation, talks on the pipeline are set to resume with Russian energy giant Gazprom declaring its willingness to hold dialogue with Ankara.

Though there still remains uncertainty over the lifting of sanctions on agricultural goods <2>, the suspension of sanctions on tourism is a huge respite for Turkey, since it had been among the top destinations for Russian tourists until November last year. Tourism contributes about 6.2 percent to the overall economic output and accounts for 8 percent of employment in Turkey. In the aftermath of the sanctions, the booming tourism industry was adversely affected by a sharp drop in Russian visitors. According to Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Russian tourism to Turkey fell by almost 92% in the past six months. 

At a time when the Russian economy is in a crisis, the resumption of trade is good for Russia as well. The ban on agricultural produce particularly proved to be quite painful for the country, given the Ukraine related counter-sanctions it imposed on European agricultural produce. However, on the positive side, the restrictions have led to the revival of Russia’s own agricultural production, even if not adequately enough to overcome shortages caused by sanctions.

Moreover, as the country prepares to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the removal of sanctions on Turkish business activities bodes well for Russia, given that the work of Turkish construction companies is crucial in developing the infrastructure for the event.

Meanwhile, Turkey has also reached a normalisation agreement with Israel, putting an end to the six-year-old rift that emerged after Israel’s Navy killed ten pro-Palestinian Turkish citizens, part of a flotilla that sailed to Gaza in 2010. Speculation is rife that President Erdoğan may initiate rapprochement with Egypt too. (Turkey-Egypt relations soured in 2013 after the elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in an army coup led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi).

President Erdoğan’s moves could be interpreted as a clever diplomatic manoeuvring. Analyst Roy Challands of Al Zajeera suggests that “the benefits of normalising relations with Russia outweighs the humiliation of saying sorry".  The Turkish president is aware that cordial ties with Moscow are crucial at a time when the influence of the United States in the Middle East is coming down.

Moreover, Turkey’s relationship with Europe is not going as intended, because of the disagreements over the Mediterranean crisis. At such a juncture, it is crucial for Turkey not to remain isolated from Moscow, which is emerging as a major player in the Middle East. Moreover, Russian airstrikes in Syria were the major cause of displeasure in Turkey. Given that Russia has withdrawn its “major forces” from Syria, this appears to be a well-timed decision by President Erdoğan.

Overall, it appears as if President Erdoğan is working towards a reformulation of his foreign policy, especially its relations with Russia. However, whether the recent failed coup will have any negative impact on the furthering of the bilateral relations remains to be seen.


<1> Russian energy giant Gazprom and Turkey’s Botas signed a memorandum of understanding to construct the pipeline in 2014. The pipeline aims to deliver Russian natural gas to Turkey via the Black Sea, further extending to Southern Europe.

<2> As the supply of agricultural goods to Russia interrupted post the introduction of Ukraine and Turkey related sanctions, the country was forced to produce domestically. Sudden lifting of embargo on agricultural produce at this juncture could adversely affect the farmers.


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Nachiket Udupa

Nachiket Udupa

Nachiket Udupa Member Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan India

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