Putin and Erdogan meet to mend ties after jet downing rift

The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by a Turkish F-16 over Syrian border saw a furious Putin slap economic sanctions on Turkey.

Saint Petersburg: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday looked to rebuild ties as they met for the first time since Ankara downed one of Moscow's warplanes in November.

Erdogan's visit to Putin's hometown of Saint Petersburg is also his first foreign trip since the failed coup against him last month that sparked a purge of opponents and cast a shadow over Turkey's relations with the West.

"Your visit today, despite a very difficult situation regarding domestic politics, indicates that we all want to restart dialogue and restore relations between Russia and Turkey," Putin said after the two leaders shook hands.

Erdogan, who has said the trip represents a "new milestone", told Putin that ties had entered a "very different phase" and thanked the Kremlin leader for his backing after the coup attempt.

The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by a Turkish F-16 over the Syrian border last fall saw a furious Putin slap economic sanctions on Turkey and launch a blistering war of words with Erdogan that seemed to irrevocably damage burgeoning ties.

But in late June, Putin surprisingly accepted a letter expressing regret over the incident from Erdogan as an apology and quickly rolled back a ban on the sale of package holidays to Turkey and signalled Moscow would end measures against Turkish food imports and construction firms.

Now in the wake of the failed July 15 coup attempt, there are fears in Western capitals that NATO-member Turkey could draw even closer to Moscow -- with Erdogan bluntly making it clear he feels let down by the United States and the European Union.

Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to phone Erdogan offering support after the coup attempt and shares none of the scruples of EU leaders about the ensuing crackdown.

In the latest sign of rocky relations with the West, Turkey's justice minister on Tuesday warned that the United States will "sacrifice relations" unless it extradites Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for the failed coup.

Back to business

Relations between Turkey and Russia -- two powers vying for influence in the strategic Black Sea region and Middle East -- have historically not been straightforward.

Yet before the plane downing crisis, Moscow and Ankara managed to prevent disputes on Syria and Ukraine harming strategic cooperation on issues like the TurkStream gas pipeline to Europe and a Russian-built nuclear power station in Turkey.

Those projects were all put on ice with trade between the two countries falling 43 percent to $6.1 billion in January-May this year and Turkey's tourism industry seeing visitor numbers from Russia fall by 93 percent.

Now with Russia mired in economic crisis due to Western sanctions over Ukraine and low oil prices along with Turkey's outlook flagging, both men want to get business started again.

Turkish media said Erdogan's entourage was made up of over half a dozen ministers including his son-in-law energy minister Berat Albayrak and the powerful head of the country's National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) Hakan Fidan.

Friends for real

The earlier uptick in relations between Turkey and Russia was built on a macho friendship between Putin and Erdogan, two combative leaders in their early 60s credited with restoring confidence to their nations in the wake of financial crises but also criticised for clamping down on human rights.

But after such a bitter dispute -- which saw Putin accuse Erdogan of stabbing Russia in the back and profiting from an illegal oil trade with the Islamic State group -- it will take a lot for the pair to reheat relations.

Russia, which is conducting a bombing campaign in support of Erdogan's foe President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, transformed the balance of the Syrian civil war last September when it intervened militarily, to Turkey's consternation.

Erdogan has insisted that Assad must still go -- a position opposed by Putin -- but told Russian media that the conflict at the heart of the falling out with Moscow could now become the focus for renewed cooperation between the two sides.

"Russia is a main, key and very important player in establishing peace in Syria," Erdogan said in comments translated into Russian. "The problem needs to be solved with the help of joint steps between Russia and Turkey."

( Source : AFP )
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