Turkey's "Apology" to Russia: More Than Meets the Eye

Turkey's "Apology" to Russia: More Than Meets the Eye

Turkish diplomacy has outsmarted Russia.


The great German statesman Otto von Bismarck remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.” From this point of view, the thawing of Russian-Turkish tensions was only a matter of time. Moscow and Ankara share common economic and geopolitical interests. The crisis in bilateral relations came after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian SU-24. Ankara's position has undergone multiple changes. Initially, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey had a legitimate right to defend its airspace and was not going to apologize to Russia. Later, a number of Turkish officials noted that the country's authorities and the military did not know that it was a Russian bomber as, according to them, the pilot failed to get in touch. At the same time, the Kremlin formed a clear position, which has consistently been voiced by the officials and state media.

President Vladimir Putin ordered sanctions against Turkey. In particular, the Russian tourism agencies were not allowed to sell trips to Turkey, visa restrictions were introduced, certain restrictions were imposed on Turkish businesses and, finally, importing of many goods and products was prohibited. The Russian president noted that Moscow was ready for a dialogue with Turkey provided that a number of conditions were met: the Turkish side would have to apologize for the incident, compensate the family of the deceased pilot and bring to justice those responsible for his death. President Erdoğan did not respond to the Russian demands for a long time, maintaining that the Turkish air force’s actions were legal. Meanwhile, Russian sanctions have caused considerable damage to the Turkish economy. They especially affected the banking and tourism sectors. Thus, Bloomberg reported that there was a significant increase in bad loans recorded in the Turkish banking industry; the nonperforming loan ratio rose to 3.18 percent.


Turkey's descent into debt led to the resignation of Erdoğan’s once-close ally, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Despite the fact that Davutoğlu officially resigned on his own initiative, leading experts noted that this was a sign of readiness to negotiate with Moscow. Since Davutoğlu’s departure, President Erdoğan highlighted the importance of restoring dialogue with Russia for the first time. But Moscow continued to insist on the fulfillment of their conditions. For Erdoğan, who makes political decisions out of emotion more so than out of pragmatism, apology was a out of the question. Besides, he felt he could leverage the migrant crisis over the Europeans.

In this regard, Europe decided to teach Ankara a lesson in political humility. The German Bundestag voted overwhelmingly to recognize the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Britain also claimed its readiness to recognize the Armenian Genocide while the Vatican officially opened its archives, which contain information about the event. Europe did not allow Ankara to play its game. Turkey was left with no choice but to improve relations with Russia.

On June 27, Dmitri Peskov, the Russian press secretary, revealed that Erdoğan had sent a letter of apology to Putin. Erdoğan wrote that he “would like to inform the family of the deceased Russian pilot that I share their pain and to offer my condolences to them. May they excuse us.” Furthermore, the case against the alleged killers of the Russian pilot would be reopened. On the surface, it seems that Erdoğan fulfilled the conditions of conciliation. But many experts point out that the letter doesn’t technically direct an apology to the Russian government. Additionally, Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s new prime minister, claimed that no payments would be made for the plane. Turkey, apparently, is ready only to discuss compensating the family of the pilot, not paying Moscow for damages.

In other words, Turkish diplomacy has outsmarted Russia. Turkey satisfied just enough of Russia’s conditions to please Moscow, but did not submit to the concessions that would have made Ankara look weak. Moscow has since lifted the tourism ban and removed its sanctions against Turkey.

Moscow and Ankara have long sought reconciliation, one that would not hurt the image of either country. Erdoğan’s letter to Putin was shrewd. Moscow perceives and presents it as an apology while Ankara avoids reputational costs. Now Turkey needs to restore economic relations with Russia and impose itself on the Syrian peace process.

Areg Galstyan, PhD, is a regular contributor to Russia in Global Affairs and Forbes.

Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kremlin.ru.