One year ago, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter bomber on the border with Syria. But, the cold war that followed between Russia and Turkey has since between replaced by an accelerated diplomatic thaw.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky's visit to Turkey this week is a clear indication that Russia and Turkey want to draw a line under the matter of the Russian military jet shot down last year. In a meeting with the mayor of the Turkish capital, Ankara, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia applauded the rapprochement between the two countries, and asserted that soon "all Turkish beaches will be full of Russian tourists."
Just one year ago, Zhirinovsky described Turkey as "Enemy Number One." He even threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on Istanbul. "Turkey has always hated Russia," he shouted on a TV talk show. This was prompted by the events of November 24, 2015, when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet on the border with Syria. One of the two Russian pilots was killed.
President Vladimir Putin responded the same day in Sochi, where he was welcoming the King of Jordan. He called the shooting down of the plane "a dagger that terrorist accomplices have driven into our backs." "Do you want to put NATO in the service of Islamic State?" the Kremlin chief asked, alluding to Turkey's membership of the alliance. Putin acted as if he had not expected things to pan out this way, although Ankara had repeatedly protested against incursions into its airspace by Russian military aircraft.
Putin announced that the incident would have "serious consequences" for Russian-Turkish relations. Among other things, Russia suspended visa-free travel with Turkey, curtailed fruit imports, made it more difficult for Turkish businesses to operate in Russia, and banned charter flights, blocking the flow of millions of Russian tourists into Turkey. Finally, their most important joint projects were frozen: construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
Shortly afterwards, Putin made further complaints against Ankara. "Large quantities of oil, on an industrial scale, are being supplied to Turkey from the oil-producing regions controlled by Islamic State and other terrorist organizations," he said on November 30, 2015, on the fringes of the UN Climate Conference in Paris. The Russian leader voiced the suspicion that Moscow had been a disturbing factor for these oil supplies. That, he suggested, was why Turkey had attacked the Russian plane.
Turkish-Russian ice age in winter
On December 3, 2015, Putin addressed both houses of the Russian parliament. "We will never forget this complicity with the terrorists," he said – emphasizing at the same time that "the Turkish people are good, hardworking and talented," and that he did not consider them to be the same as "that part of the current ruling elite." Putin's fiercest remark, in many observers' view, was the sentence that "clearly Allah has decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by depriving them of sense and reason."
At a press conference in mid-December, Putin stated that "it is very difficult, if not impossible, to reach agreement with the current Turkish leadership." The winter came and went without any movement in the bilateral relationship. But by the spring comments on both the Turkish and the Russian side already indicated that both wanted to see relations improve again. "We too want to restore the old relationship," said Putin. He emphasized that Turkey must apologize first.
Not long ago, Russia defiantly loaded missile systems for Syria, pledging to fly more missions near Turkish airspace
Swift thaw after Erdogan's letter
On June 27, 2016, Moscow announced that Putin had received a letter from Erdogan in which the Turkish president apologized for the shooting down of the plane and the pilot's death. The thaw set in from that moment on. Just two days later, Putin was talking to Erdogan on the phone. The Russian president instructed the government "to initiate the normalization of the trade and economic relationship with Turkey." When the attempted coup took place in Turkey on July 15, Putin called Erdogan the following day and assured him of his support.
Their first meeting in person was on August 9, 2016, in Putin's home town of St Petersburg. "I would like to say that we have indeed been through a very difficult time in our bilateral relationship," said Putin. "But we would all very much like – and we sense that our Turkish friends would also like – to overcome these difficulties, in the interest of the Turkish people and the people of Russia."
From Turkish Stream to air defense
This summer, Russian tourists once again headed for Turkey in large numbers. An agreement concerning the Turkish Stream gas pipeline was signed in Istanbul. Gazprom plans to supply Turkish consumers with one line, and consumers in Europe with a second. In addition, construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant is to begin in 2018. Representatives of the Russian general staff are reported to have visited Turkey, and Turkish military leaders have been received in Moscow. Furthermore, Russia is offering to work with NATO member Turkey on armaments – particularly anti-aircraft systems. President Putin doesn't recall – not publicly, anyway – accusing the Turkish leadership of being terrorist accomplices.