ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Turkey’s president cozied up to his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in a visit intended to send a message to his allies in the West, whom he blames for what he considers a lack of support after a failed coup.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pressed the United States to extradite the man he claims was behind the failed insurrection, and has sought more funds and visa-free travel from the European Union, but it’s unclear what leverage improved ties with Russia could give him.
Putin, in turn, expects Turkey to become more accommodating of Russia’s interests in Syria and move faster on major energy projects – demands Ankara could find difficult to meet.
After their talks in St. Petersburg’s ornate Konstantin Palace, both leaders emphasized their shared desire to rebuild ties, but it remained unclear if they could reach common ground on the Syrian crisis. While Moscow has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the nation’s civil war and further bolstered that support by launching an air campaign last September, Turkey has pushed for Assad’s removal and helped his foes.
Putin said he and Erdogan would have a separate discussion on Syria later Tuesday involving top diplomats and intelligence officials.
Repeatedly calling Putin his “dear friend,” Erdogan refrained from mentioning any sticking points after the talks, saying he expects ties to fully blossom again soon. He said Turkey is ready to implement a natural gas pipeline project proposed by Moscow and a deal for Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
Both projects were announced years earlier, but had been held back by commercial disputes even before Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet at the Syrian border last November.
The shoot-down, which Putin called a “treacherous stab in the back,” brought relations to a freezing point where they remained for seven months until Erdogan apologized to Russia in June. Putin responded by ordering his government to start rebuilding ties with Turkey, and when Erdogan faced the botched coup attempt on July 15 the Russian leader quickly offered his support.
Erdogan emphasized that pledge of support, saying “it was very important for us psychologically. It offered us moral support and showed Russia’s solidarity with Turkey.”
While Putin also spoke of rebuilding ties, he sounded more cautious, warning that it will take time to fully restore them.
Moscow has accused the Turkish government of turning a blind eye to the flow of weapons and supplies to the Islamic State group and other extremists in Syria. While the Kremlin has tempered its rhetoric amid the rapprochement, Putin will most certainly push Erdogan to cut support for the rebels engaged in a fierce battle with Assad’s forces in Aleppo.
Moscow could use economic levers to force Turkey to compromise on Syria. Turkey badly needs the flow of Russian tourists to resume, and Turkish farmers, construction companies and other businesses badly need to regain access to the Russian market, which has been shut to them after the plane’s downing.
Putin said Tuesday that charter flights to Turkey could resume “in the near future,” but added that “painstaking work is ahead to revive trade and economic cooperation.”
“This process has been launched, but it will take some time,” the Russian leader said.
While ties with Russia can’t substitute Turkey’s economic and security cooperation with the U.S. and the EU and its membership in NATO, Erdogan clearly hopes to use the Russia card to strengthen his hand in disputes with his Western partners.
Turkey has pressed the United States hard to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric the government blames for the failed coup. Gulen has repeatedly denied any involvement.
The dispute has strained U.S.-Turkish ties, with some Turkish officials implying Washington could have been behind the coup. The Obama administration has strongly denied that.
Speaking after the talks with Putin, Erdogan reiterated his contention that Gulen was behind the failed insurrection and alleged that the coup plotters were also responsible for the crisis in relations with Russia. He didn’t touch on Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition.
The failed coup saw renegade Turkish military officers using jets, helicopters and tanks try to take power in a night of violence that left more than 270 people dead. Since then, about 18,000 people have been detained or arrested and nearly 70,000 others suspected of links to Gulen have been suspended or dismissed from the civil service, judiciary, education, health care and the military.
Turkish officials have fumed at expressions of concern over the sweeping crackdown from European officials and rights groups, and accused the West of failing to show support for a democratically elected government. Ankara also lashed out at the EU for failing to uphold its end of an EU-Turkey agreement on migration.
The deal, struck in March, helped stem the flow of migrants from Turkey to the nearby Greek islands in exchange for an EU pledge of funds and visa-free travel for Turks. But plans to ease visa rules have run into trouble and Erdogan accused the EU earlier this month of failing to deliver the promised funds.
In contrast with his criticism of the U.S. and the EU, Erdogan heaped praise on Putin for offering support after the coup, saying: “We are strongly determined to take our relations to the pre-crisis and even higher level.”
Putin responded in kind, saying that “higher interests of our peoples, our nations require the restoration of our ties.”
by Irina Titova and Vladimir Isachenkov (AP)