Putin and Erdogan vow to repair ties

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting Tuesday.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting Tuesday.

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 the 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 had to be 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 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

The governments in Washington and Ankara, long at odds over the United States’ 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 Erdogan has accused of leading the coup attempt.

For Putin, who has made little secret of his ambitions to weaken NATO and crack European unity, the opportunity to forge a new and closer relationship with a humbled 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 an immediate one. 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 briefly violated its airspace on the Syrian border, with one pilot killed by ground fire after ejecting.

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

Any future agreements between the two countries could have significant repercussions for the Middle East and Europe. Erdogan most likely hopes to use the leverage of better 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 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 nobody envisions such a shift anytime soon.

“Erdogan can use Russia as a trump card in his negotiations with the West,” said Alexander 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.”

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 Vasilyev, the analyst.

On Tuesday, the two leaders said they were planning to restart all that, with Erdogan repeating 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,” Erdogan said at the news conference.

Putin said that 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.

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