Russia and Turkey moved towards restoring full trade and economic relations on Tuesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin met his visiting counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, at a time when both countries have strained ties with the West.
Putin said he wanted a “full-spectre restoration of relations”, which were damaged when NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border late last year.
“Life changes quickly,” Putin told a news conference after holding talks with Erdogan in St Petersburg, adding that Russian sanctions imposed on Turkey over the plane downing could be lifted step-by-step.
Erdogan, whose strongman-style leadership is often likened to Putin’s, was equally upbeat: “Both sides are extremely determined and have the necessary will to take our relations back to where they were and even to improve them further.”
The meeting paves the way for a resumption of Turkish food imports to Russia, of Russian charter flights to Turkey, and raises the prospect of cooperation between Moscow and Ankara on the Syrian civil war despite them backing opposing sides.
Russia and Turkey have two of the biggest militaries in the world and Erdogan’s trip is being closely watched in the West where some officials fear his growing detente with Moscow could affect Ankara’s links with NATO.
The Turkish president’s visit to Russia is his first foreign trip since a failed military coup inTurkey last month, in which more than 240 people were killed.
Ties with the West have been strained in the aftermath of the coup. Turkey has been incensed by the concerns expressed by Washington and European capitals about Ankara’s subsequent crackdown on suspected plotters, but what is sees as indifference to the coup attempt itself.
As Ankara sealed its rapprochement with Russia, at home it warned of rising anti-American sentiment and of risks to a migrant deal with the European Union, in remarks which underlined how bad its ties with the West are.
The Russian president said a restoration of ties with Turkey would increase stability in “in the whole world” as the leaders met in a Tsarist-era palace just outside Putin’s home city of St Petersburg.
Putin stressed his backing for Erdogan’s handling of the attempted coup, noting he had been one of the first world leaders to phone him and offer his support. He said he hoped Ankara could fully restore order in Turkey.
“I want to again say that it’s our principled position that we are always categorically against any attempts at unconstitutional actions,” he said. “I want to express the hope that under your leadership the Turkish people will cope with this problem (the coup’s aftermath) and that order and constitutional legality will be restored.”
Putin said the two men would later on Tuesday discuss Syria, a conflict where the two countries find themselves on opposing sides, with Moscow backing President Bashar al-Assad and Ankara wanting him out of power.
Progress there could be a tough ask given the complexities of the conflict and their different loyalties, but repairing business ties promises to be an easier task.
“As a result of the talks we held today, we have taken steps to take our relations with Russia to where they should be politically, economically and culturally,” said Erdogan, who said they had agreed on setting up a joint Russian-Turkish investment fund and to increase cooperation on defence.
Stalled Russian work on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant was set to be restarted too, he said.
The two leaders said they had also agreed to revive a gas pipeline project, known as TurkStream, which is meant to be supplying Ankara with additional volumes of Russian gas and to increase deliveries to the European Union in the future.
Russia has been considering a number of projects to supply Europe with gas bypassing Ukraine – but the EU has opposed most projects as it seeks to cut its reliance on gas from Moscow, which already provides a third of its supplies.
Russia’s Energy Minister Alexander Novak said the first line of TurkStream to supply Ankara with gas could be built as early as 2019 but that solid guarantees from the EU were needed before a second line taking gas from Russia to the bloc across Turkey could be built.
Turkish officials have said Erdogan’s visit to Russia is not intended to signal a fundamental shift in Ankara’s geopolitical stance. Turkey hosts American troops and warplanes at its Incirlik air base, an important staging area for the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State militants in neighbouring Iraq and Syria.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier played down Western concerns, telling the Bild daily that he was not worried about Turkey and Russia improving ties.
“It is good that after the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey last year, there is a rapprochement,” he said. “At the same time I do not believe that relations between the two countries will become so close that Russia can offer Turkey an alternative to the NATO security partnership.”