Barely seven months after a Turkish Air Force pilot shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet, relations between Russia and Turkey began to thaw. In late June 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dramatically backed down from his former obstinate position of no apology, hence no surrender and wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, gleefully published by the Kremlin. Expressing "sympathy and profound condolences to the family of the Russian pilot," Erdogan asked Russia to "excuse us." He also said that a Turkish man suspected of killing the pilot would be prosecuted.

On June 29, Putin spoke to Erdogan on the phone for the first time since the incident. Putin agreed to lift travel restrictions and begin negotiating an end to other economic sanctions. As a result, it can be said that Erdogan’s apology exposed both weakness of the Turkish president, who until an apology was issued was not ready to bend down, and the degree of pragmatism following sweeping economic sanctions imposed by Putin on Turkey that indeed hurt the Turkish economy.

The chill in bilateral relations demonstrated that Turkey is more dependent on Russia than vice versa. The so-called strategic partnership between Turkey and Russia coined by some Turkish analysts and commentators never really existed but was rather a Turkish vision without strategic backup that failed at the first test of worsening relations between the two countries. The recent rapprochement produced a clear winner in the clash of personalities, namely Putin, while Erdogan was cornered without a chance for escape.

Furthermore, it is evident that rapprochement is not leading back to the same cozy relations that once existed between the presidents. Despite Erdogan calling Putin "my dear friend," there is no reciprocity from the side of Putin. This time it is evident that Putin leads while Erdogan listen and follows. In other words, the dynamic of bilateral relations has worsened for Erdogan, even if he is not yet ready to admit it.

We need to remember that the failed military coup in Turkey on July 15 put Erdogan in an enviable position. Domestically, Erdogan is cleansing the Gulenists — those following the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is based in the US and who Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the coup — and the process has not yet reached its end, while the war in Syria rages as before and the relations between Turkey and its Western allies have worsened to the point that US Secretary of State John Kerry raised an issue of expelling Turkey from NATO.


Fallout of Turkey Coup Attempt

Aaron Stein, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East discusses Turkey’s military vulnerabilities in the wake of its recent coup.

Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu noted July 25: "We have received unconditional support from Russia , unlike other countries." He was likely referring to Western allies.

The "unconditional support" comes from the same Russia that strengthened Syria President Bashar Assad's regime since March 2011 and continues to do so today. Apparently, Erdogan and the government of Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim have belatedly waken up to the reality that Assad is there to stay whether they like it or not.

In another relevant case of the two countries' rapprochement on May 11, Erdogan complained that the Black Sea has become a "Russian lake." Erdogan told NATO Secretary-General Jan Stoltenberg: "You are absent in the Black Sea and that is why it has nearly become a Russian lake, and we should perform our duty as we are the countries with access to the Black Sea ." After the rapprochement, the Erdogan statement was discarded and forgotten.

In both cases in Syria and in the Black Sea region,  Russia demonstrated to Turkey that if Turkey is willing to join Russia then it should be on clearly articulated Russian terms, namely accepting the reality that Russia leads while Turkey follows. The two presidents were not and still are not equal partners and certainly not dear friends, to say the least.

Eugene Kogan

is a defense and security expert affiliated with the Tbilisi-based Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.