Russia signals interest to defrost ties with Turkey

In an abrupt turnaround, Moscow has put out feelers to Turkey signalling interest in calming tensions in the bilateral relations and opening a new page. The Russian civil aviation authorities have lifted the ban on flights to Antalya on the Mediterranean, which is known as the Turkish Riviera and a popular destination for Russian tourists.

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No explanation has been given for the decision, in terms of which Ural Airlines will fly seven times a week from the Russian cities of Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan to Antalya.

Moscow had previously banned the sale of tour packages and charter flights to Turkey – as well as import of certain Turkish goods – after a Russian military jet was downed by a Turkish F-16 on Nov. 24. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order to extend Russian economic sanctions against Turkey.

Moscow’s latest decision suggests that Russian tourists may return to Turkey as before. The number of Russian tourists had dropped by a million last year to 3.6 million.

Again, on Thursday, a senior Kremlin politician Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of Russian parliament, was quoted as saying,

  • Our relations with Turkey need to be taken out of the deep freeze. We are actually ready to solve this but we are not the reason for this coldness between us.
  • For the ice to melt, Turkey needs to take a step and take responsibility for downing our plane. Unfortunately, we have not perceived even an indication from Ankara that such a step will be taken.

Matviyenko put the onus on Turkey by insisting that Ankara must “take responsibility for downing our plane”. But she left the pre-condition sufficiently vague. Some amicable formula seems to be under consideration whereby the two sides can move on.

Clearly, the Russian stance has mellowed, considering that at the peak of tensions, Putin had voiced skepticism whether Russian-Turkish relations could be normalized at all so long as the leadership in Ankara remained in power.

Putin had spoken to the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani twice in recent days. Turkey and Qatar are aligned closely on Syria and the emir is also personally close to Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Possibly, the emir has acted as a go-between. At any rate, it is apparent that the demonizing of Erdogan in the Russian media propaganda has noticeably tapered off.

To be sure, Moscow is preparing the ground for reopening dialogue with Ankara. What explains the sense of urgency? Simply put, it is the Syrian peace talks under way in Geneva. Engaging with Ankara has become an unavoidable practical necessity for Russian diplomacy while steering the Syrian peace process, since Turkey is a key player with real capacity to influence the situation in Syria, whether anyone likes it or not.

In principle, Russia has imposed a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria but reports continue to appear that Turkey nevertheless keeps supplying the extremist groups in Syria with weapons and fighters. Some Iranian reports even claimed that in Salahuddin in Iraq, Islamic State used brand new weapons manufactured in 2016, which the jihadists could have only sourced from Turkey.

However, Ankara too should be in a chastened mood now. The horrific terrorist strikes in Ankara and Istanbul apart, Ankara would know that the ground situation is turning more and more in favour of the Syrian government forces and the ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad has become highly improbable.

The capture of the ancient city of Palmyra from the hands of the Islamic State, which is imminent, will be a big morale booster for the Syrian regime. The government forces have encircled Aleppo and cut off most of the supply routes from Turkey. They are expected to have a crack at liberating Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the Islamic State, in a near future. At this point, clearly, the priorities are changing for both Moscow and Ankara.

While Moscow’s interest will be to see that the Syrian ceasefire holds, Ankara will appreciate that Russia holds many cards on the Syrian chessboard. Put differently, Moscow’s help becomes useful and necessary to secure Turkey’s legitimate interests in any Syrian settlement.

Moscow received two important visitors on Wednesday – German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the US Secretary of State John Kerry. Both these western statesmen would have strong reasons to urge the Kremlin to patch up with Erdogan.

For Germany, Turkey is a hugely important interlocutor today on the issue of Syrian refugees. For the US, Turkey is a key NATO ally whose cold war with Russia becomes an obstacle (and a potentially dangerous flashpoint) in the Syrian peace process.

However, from the Turkish viewpoint, the most critical issue today will be Russia’s equations with the Syrian Kurds. Reports suggest that Russia has been helping the Syrian Kurds in their military operations to gain ground in northern Syria in areas bordering Turkey. Russia has also been vociferously advocating the inclusion of Kurds at the Syrian peace table (which is something that Turkey has opposed tooth and nail). Meanwhile, Kurds have proclaimed their agenda of a federated Syria.

Conceivably, Moscow held out a meaningful signal to Ankara on Friday by discarding traces of any ambivalence on Syrian Kurds. The deputy foreign minister and presidential envoy on the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov stated in Moscow,

  • Our task is to help Kurds, to find common ground, common approaches. National Syrian interests should prevail over all others. They should proceed from the fact that Syria should not be broken apart as it will be bad for Syrians themselves.

Bogdanov added that Moscow has good relations and contacts with the Kurds. He just stopped short of holding out an assurance to Ankara that Moscow would be willing to go the extra mile to prevent a break-up of Syria. With direct talks between the Syrian government and the opposition expected in the next round of negotiations in April, there is scope for some sort of give and take between Moscow and Ankara regarding the inclusion of Kurds in the peace talks.

Moscow has failed to ‘isolate’ Erdogan. On the other hand, it has done well to re-engage Turkey within a week of the visit by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to Istanbul.

Moscow cannot afford the emergent format of Russian-American co-piloting of the Syrian peace process, which has been shored up with great effort, being upstaged by regional powers who may feel excluded. Of course, the sensible thing will be to engage the irascible parties and give them a sense of involvement. Russian diplomacy cast its net wide in the Middle East, but Turkey was a solitary exception, and the gap was becoming untenable. Moscow is now moving to close it.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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