MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, putting an end to a year of hostility and what has often been seen as a personal battle of wills between the two strongmen leaders.
The Turkish president flew to St. Petersburg to talk with Putin, his first trip since the attempted coup against him last month.
The meeting is likely to alarm Western nations as relations with Turkey -- a NATO ally -- reach a low point over Erdogan’s authoritarian response to the July 15 coup. Some fear Turkey, which has taken on an antagonistic attitude toward the United States and Europe, may have now moved closer to Moscow and its hostile attitudes toward the United States and Europe.
Erdogan was late to the meeting, making Putin -- himself notoriously tardy to state occasions -- wait an hour. But speaking at a news conference after the talks, Putin and Erdogan said the two countries could now return to normal relations and their quarrel was over.
Relations between Russia and Turkey were thrown into crisis when Turkish jets shot down a Russian fighter-bomber close to the Syrian border in November. Turkey said the jet had crossed into Turkish territory and that Moscow had been repeatedly warned over previous airspace violations.
The Kremlin rejected that, with Putin calling the shooting a “stab in the back."
Moscow retaliated by imposing broad economic sanctions on Turkey, blocking vegetable imports and discouraging Russian tourists from visiting. The number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey -- 2 million annually -- has fallen sharply, dropping by almost 90 percent in some resorts.
At the time, Putin personally attacked Erdogan and the Turkish government, labeling them as “sponsors of terrorism” and suggesting they supported ISIS. Erdogan, meanwhile, refused to apologize and criticized Russia for its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
But today the two leaders said they had buried the hatchet at the meeting, which was scheduled after Erdogan wrote a letter in June apologizing to Putin for the downing of the Russian jet.
"Our two sides are determined to bring our relations to a pre-crisis level, and even to a higher level,” Erdogan said at the news conference. “We have the political will for that.”
Putin called the talks "constructive" and said Russia wanted a resumption of normal relations. He announced a program of economic and cultural cooperation would be unveiled soon and that travel restrictions on travelling to Turkey would be lifted.
What Happens Next?
Russian officials said that they expected a number of economic sanctions to be lifted from Turkey before the end of the year.
On the issue of Syria -- which, in reality, lies at the base of the two countries' falling out -- Putin and Erdogan did not announce a breakthrough, with Putin saying they would meet again after the news conference to discuss the issue separately to try to find common ground. Turkey is bitterly opposed to Assad, whom Russia has been keeping afloat with an air campaign. Before it was brought down, the plane at the center of the dispute had been bombing anti-Assad rebels supported by Turkey.
Analysts said neither country had much interest in prolonging the dispute. Already under pressure at home from a wave of terrorist attacks and a faltering economy that has been hit by a sharp drop in tourism, and now at odds with his Western allies over a crackdown since the coup, Erdogan is eager to mend fences with Russia.
Ostracized over the Ukraine crisis, Russia, likewise, has little to gain in treating Turkey as hostile.
“They’re both in the situation where they need friends,” Philip Hanson, a Russia analyst at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, said.
Why the US and EU Have Cause for Concern
The detente is likely to worry the United States and the European Union, which is dependent on Turkey’s cooperation over the Syrian crisis and in containing the flow of refugees to Europe. Turkey has attacked Western leaders for their lukewarm condemnations of the coup, while they have expressed concern about repressions that have followed, including thousands of arrests.
Erdogan himself has blamed the July 15 coup on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and Turkish media has suggested the United States may have known of it in advance. Some observers said Russia may be seizing on these tensions; Putin was the first leader to call Erdogan after the coup attempt, something Erdogan thanked him for today.
“Putin has an interest in buttering up a NATO member which is practically now at odds with the EU,” Hanson said.
Even Some Russians Caught Off Guard
The rapprochement has caused some discomfort among Russians.
A caller survey today by the radio station Ekho Moskvi found 64 percent of listeners were unhappy Putin had made peace with Erdogan.
One of the show’s contributors, Andrei Petrovich, acknowledged he had some “cognitive dissonance” accepting that Erdogan was now a friend, but said, in general, he was content.
“That we’re friends with the Turkish people again pleases me overall,” he said. “Turkey has warm seas, good products and tasty tomatoes.”