Extremely rapid developments have taken place in the last couple of days regarding Turkish-Russian relations. Letter diplomacy, which commenced on the 12th of June with the letters send by the Turkish President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yıldırım to their Russian counterparts, was followed by a letter sent to President Putin by President Erdoğan on the 27th of June.
This step seems to have paved the way for the process of overcoming the warplane crisis, which has dramatically affected bilateral relations over the past seven months.
Letter Diplomacy as an Art of Diplomatic Language
In the letter that was sent to President Putin and subsequently published on the Kremlin website President Erdoğan expressed his deep condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who has lost his life after Turkey shot down the Russian warplane flying by its Syrian border. Moreover, President Erdoğan stated that “he is sorry about that [the death of the Russian pilot]”! As for the shooting down Russian warplane, President Erdoğan repeats once more that “we regret this incident”, as has been stated before since the incident took place on the 24th of November 2015. The letter also emphasized the importance of the two country’s bilateral relations and calls for relieving the damage in order to have friendly relations once more.
The most important question was whether the letter would be accepted by the President Putin as an important step. As is well known, every initiative of Turkey to overcome the effects of the incident since November 2015 has been met with three demands from Russia: apology, compensation, and trial of the people who were responsible. It seems that all of these demands were mentioned in the letter send on the 27th of June. By using the art of diplomatic language President Erdoğan says “excuse us” (izvinite) to the family of the pilot; makes it clear that Turkey is “ready to undertake any initiative that could lessen the pain and severity of the damage caused”; thirdly, it was also mentioned that “a judicial investigation is underway against the Turkish citizen said to be involved in the Russian pilot’s death”.
These statements in the letter have been evaluated as comprising an “apology” by the Russian media. Sources also said that the letter will be accepted by Kremlin as an important step in the way to leave behind the crisis. On the other hand looking at how the letter was seen in Turkey, picture is quite different. Mr. Kalın, President Erdoğan’s spokesman made it very clear that the letter does not amount to an “apology”. According to Kalın, the Turkish president extended condolences to family of Russian pilot whose warplane was downed by Turkey last November.
It seems that by using diplomatic language efficiently the formula of re-starting relations was found. Both of the leaders had the room for maneuver and convinced public opinion that they were/and still are decisive and consistent on that issue.
It seems that geostrategic and geo-economics reasons lay behind the letter initiative. First of all, cutting dynamic economic relations – which has gained great momentous since the mid 2000’s – right after the incident has had dramatic effects on both sides. Turkey’s tourism, construction and agriculture sectors, as well as ordinary citizens who work in those fields, were hit seriously due to the sanctions Russia applied in terms of import restriction on Turkish foods, a ban on tourist travel to Turkey, an embargo on hiring Turkish citizens in Russia and a ban on Turkish organizations’ activities in Russia. From this standpoint moving on bilateral relations and leaving the crisis behind will indeed bring relief to society. On the other hand, since EU sanctions against Russia still continue, regaining access to Turkey’s agricultural exports would also be a boon to Russian consumers. Moreover, political and military contacts also are expected to commence in the near future. Considering that regional conflicts continue in different neighborhood of Turkey, the importance and need of re-starting this dialogue is obvious. Lastly, President Erdogan’s letter to Putin – along with the normalization of relations with Israel – should also be evaluated as a part of foreign policy re-orientation taking place following the cabinet change in Ankara.
For Russia, as the second biggest customer of Gazprom, Turkey is not only an important market but also an important transit country for Russian energy. The warplane incident introduced uncertainty into the future of vitally important energy projects. Normalization of bilateral relations may positively affect the future of those energy projects as well. However for such developments to take place it will be necessarily to overcome the ‘confidence crisis.’ At this point it is important to note the statement made by the Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, to the effect that “in order to re-start dialogue and have good relations with Russia Turkey needs to reformulate its foreign policy towards Syria and Iraq”. It is still important to bear in mind that restoring relations and limiting the damage of the warplane crisis is very important in terms of regional developments. Recent developments in Black Sea (especially the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw) and the Caucasus also remind both sides of the importance of cooperation.
Following reception of President Erdogan’s letter to President Putin, the two leaders held their first phone call since the warplane incident last year. According to the Turkish Presidency “Reiterating their commitment to reinvigorate bilateral relations and fight terrorism together, the two leaders agreed to remain in contact and meet in person”. After the call, President Putin ordered his government to begin the process of lifting sanctions against Turkey by declaring that “I ask that the Russian Government begins the process of normalizing general trade and economic ties with Turkey”.
Even though there seems to be general expectation in both Turkey and Russia that “it will not be possible to normalize everything in several days”, the atmosphere between the two political leaders seems to be changing faster than expected. It is possible to say that bilateral relations are moving towards normalization. The new period of Turkey-Russia relations will be determined by many different regional developments. However, the two leaders are also to shape the new term, as was also the case before.
In conclusion, the ‘letter diplomacy’ that was started by the Turkish side and the positive response from the Kremlin have paved the way for normalization of bilateral relations. This initiative must be supplemented with certain foreign policy applications. Surprising developments regarding the letter diplomacy and Putin’s decision to lift the sanctions have once again shown that the two leaders are the main actors shaping and deciding the nature of their countries’ bilateral relations. As for the motivation behind the leaders, geostrategic and geo-economics reasons may be found.
Writes: Habibe Özdal