Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Putin and Erdogan Vow to Repair Ties as West Watches Nervously
New York Times
AUG. 9, 2016

MOSCOW — Against a backdrop of rising tensions between Turkey and the West, Presidents Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey pledged on Tuesday to repair relations after nine months of open antagonism.

Although their meeting in St. Petersburg on Tuesday produced little beyond vows of friendship and cooperation, the symbolism of the two former antagonists coming together for a friendly talk was enough to raise alarms in Western capitals. Besides being a member of the NATO alliance, Turkey is vital to Europe’s efforts to stanch the flow of migrants from Syria and Afghanistan.

Washington and Ankara, long at odds over American support of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, have had a series of problems lately. Anti-Americanism has been on the rise in Turkey, amid accusations that the United States played a role in the failed coup in Turkey and widespread resentment of the White House’s criticism of the resulting crackdown.

Turkish officials have been further infuriated by President Obama’s reluctance to hand over Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Mr. Erdogan has accused of leading the coup attempt.

For Mr. Putin, who has made little secret of his ambitions to weaken NATO and crack European unity, the opportunity to forge a new, closer relationship with a humbled Mr. Erdogan was probably deeply satisfying, and a vindication of his decision to intervene militarily in Syria.

No one predicted a radical shift in relations, at least not immediately. Russia and Turkey have been on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, and the two leaders had been at each other’s throats since November, when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it said had violated its airspace on the Syrian border.

After the jet was shot down, Mr. Putin called Mr. Erdogan a back-stabber and demanded an apology, which was refused.

That episode drew an angry response from Moscow, which banned most fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey and halted the flow of millions of Russian tourists. Although Russian gas sales to Turkey continued, the countries’ $30 billion in annual trade decreased by 43 percent, Mr. Putin said.

“It is true that we lived through a complicated moment in our interstate relations,” Mr. Putin said at a joint news conference televised from St. Petersburg. “But we all would like to — and we feel that our Turkish friends want the same — overcome those complications.”

Feeling increasingly isolated this summer, Mr. Erdogan wrote a letter in June offering the apology Mr. Putin had demanded for the downing of the Russian jet. With that done, steps could begin toward a normalization of relations.

Efforts to restore ties then accelerated after the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, after which Mr. Putin was the first leader to call to offer support. “It was very important from a mental perspective, this kind of psychological support,” Mr. Erdogan said at the news conference.

Any future agreements between the two countries could have significant repercussions for the Middle East and Europe. Mr. Erdogan most likely hopes to use the leverage of improved relations with Russia to force a better deal with Europe over the migrant crisis. European leaders have joined the United States in criticizing the sweeping arrests that followed the failed coup.

Closer ties with Russia also carry the potential to create tensions within NATO that Mr. Putin would be happy to exploit. Ultimately, Moscow would like to draw Turkey into its orbit and into the security and trade organizations it is promoting in Asia, although such a shift is not expected anytime soon.

“Erdogan can use Russia as a trump card in his negotiations with the West,” said Aleksandr D. Vasilyev, an expert on Russian-Turkish ties at the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow. “For him, the main goal is the West, not Russia.”

If the White House was uneasy about the potential warming of relations between Turkey and Russia, nobody was saying so publicly. At the State Department on Tuesday, officials referred questions about the meeting to the Turkish government, and argued that the meeting itself had not changed the American calculus on the Middle East or Europe.

“We don’t view this as a zero-sum game,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, a State Department spokeswoman. She noted that Turkey and Russia were both members of the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, and had both been involved in the effort to end Syria’s civil war. “There’s a lot of common goals, common interests there.”

“I don’t think it’s a question at all that our relationship with Turkey would be weakened at all by this,” Ms. Trudeau added.

She said she had no update on Turkey’s request for the United States to extradite Mr. Gulen, a “legal, technical process” about which American officials have been in direct contact with the Turkish authorities. The administration, Ms. Trudeau said, feels anti-American rhetoric is “unhelpful” to the United States’ relationship with Turkey. “We believe our relations and our partnership and our friendship with Turkey is strong,” she said.

As for Russia and Turkey, Syria remains a major potential fault line, despite the pledges to work together. Mr. Putin noted that the views of the two sides “do not always coincide” when it comes to Turkey’s southern neighbor. Mr. Erdogan is a bitter enemy of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and has insisted that he step down before peace negotiations can begin. Russia, though, is a longtime ally of Mr. Assad’s, and it intervened with Iran in the Syrian conflict to bolster his fortunes.

Yet the Kremlin also signaled on Tuesday that it was in Syria to stay. Mr. Putin called on Russia’s Parliament to approve an extended deployment of the Russian Air Force at Khmeimim Air Base outside Latakia, Syria, where its planes have flown sorties for almost a year to bolster Mr. Assad. Parliamentary approval is virtually guaranteed.

“This is a demonstration that Russia has come to Syria for a very long time,” said Aleksandr M. Golts, a Russian military analyst. “This is a demonstration that it will support Assad and that it is ready to tie itself to a regime that is involved in a bloody civil war.”

Russia would like Turkey to seal its borders and stem the flow of fighters and weapons to the insurgents, and to reverse its demand that Mr. Assad must go. Ankara wants Moscow to stop bombing its insurgent allies; to lessen support for the Kurds; and to halt the bombing of civilian populations, which drives refugees into Turkey.

As a possible sign of good will, a major Kurdish representative office closed in Moscow on Sunday, although the local representative said it was because of rent costs rather than politics.

In the bleak days, planning was suspended on the Turkish Stream pipeline meant to deliver Russian gas to Europe, as well as on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant that Russia is building in southern Turkey.

Russia’s gas industry, starting with Gazprom, the state-controlled behemoth, is eager to get the Turkish Stream back on track, because other routes to Europe have been blocked, and Turkey is just as keen on becoming a hub for gas distribution.

“I think the interests of Gazprom and the energy companies are the cornerstone of what is happening,” said Mr. Vasilyev, the analyst.

On Tuesday, the two leaders said they were planning to restart all that. Mr. Erdogan repeated their pre-crisis pledge to eventually increase annual trade between the countries to $100 billion.

“Both countries are committed and determined to returning our relationship to its pre-crisis level,” Mr. Erdogan said at the news conference.

Mr. Putin said Mr. Erdogan had pledged to grant the Akkuyu project the status of a “strategic investment,” helping it avoid taxes and reap other benefits.

Russia agreed to lift sanctions that had barred some agricultural imports and had stopped the flow of millions of Russian tourists.

As recently as May, the “complications,” as Mr. Putin called them, meant that Turkey in general, and Mr. Erdogan in particular, were often portrayed as enemy No. 1 on Russia’s state-run television.

For all the professed warmth during the talks with Mr. Erdogan, Russia seemed to drop one subtle hint that things were not entirely back to normal.

Greece and Turkey share a long, ancient enmity, and Russian news reports noted that Mr. Putin had met his Turkish counterpart in a restored czarist palace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

They met in the Greek sitting room.

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from Washington.

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