November 24, 2015, the date on which the Russian plane was downed, became a turning point in terms of Turkish-Russian ties.
Yet the most recent years were the brightest in the history of the two countries' relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Antalya for the G20 summit held on November 15-16, only a week before the downing of the plane.
One of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's most productive meetings within the scope of G20 was with Putin. Ever since the downing of the Russian plane, Turkey-Russia relations took a turn for the worse. We have not been able to fly any planes over Syria since November 24. In relation to the new process that started in Geneva, we are only able to be effective through remote intervention. In addition to the economic restrictions imposed by Putin having a negative impact on our trade with Russia, the suspicion that Russia might have been involved in the suicide bombings in Istanbul's Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu districts and Ankara's Merasim Street and Kızılay Square still remains. Ankara's efforts since the downing of the plane have not been enough to convince Putin. The Russian president who lost credit with the downing of the plane started to wait for an opportunity to punish Turkey. Refraining from flying our planes over Syria was to avoid giving Putin such an opportunity. Putin is a leader who grows through crises. If one day a book is written to analyze Putin, it will have to accept his leadership in turning all crisis into an opportunity. It would be more befitting to call the Russian leader, “The Lord of Crises.”
Even though Putin is slightly likened, in this sense, to Nikita Khrushchev, the former premier of the Soviet Union, Putin is Putin. He took great advantage of the crisis with Turkey when Syria was being designed. He excluded Turkey from the equation and shaped the process with the US – and they continue to do so. Meanwhile, the statesman who became involved to fix Turkey and Russia's relationship returned empty handed. Putin avoided a solution as long as he was the one who benefited from the crisis. This was a deliberate choice.
The first positive signal during the crisis came from Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on March 26. Zakharova said the crisis between Russia and Turkey was a temporary one. This statement was followed by a second step. A Russian military delegation came to Turkey. The delegation that arrived in Turkey in top secrecy visited the Amphibious Marine Infantry Brigade Command in Foça, Izmir. The Russian military delegations' contacts will continue.
Now for the question on everybody's mind: What does the Russian military delegation's Turkey visit signify? Is it possible to consider this as the first indication that the crisis has entered a period of detente? Is the crisis between the two countries that emerged with the downing of the Russian plane being overcome?
In pursuit of this and similar questions, the response I got was “a positive step.” The arrival of the Russian military delegation is considered as progress. This step taken in the military area is expected to reflect soon on the political climate. Ankara is cautiously optimistic. They are not attributing great meaning to the Russian military delegation's visit. Yet it is not entirely seen as an insignificant and futile visit either. In this sense, I think that the contacts of the Russian military delegation and the following process needs to be followed carefully.
Of course neither friendships not enmities between countries are forever. While Putin persisted in his crisis policy, Turkey at least made efforts to prevent the crisis from escalating. I cannot say the same for Putin, but it was a restrained process in terms of our country. Especially when Russia in in question.
The process with Israel in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara raid that took place on May 31, 2010 was different.
All ties with Israel had been cut after the Mavi Marmara incident which resulted in nine martyrs. It was the same in the military area. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) excluded Israel from the previously determined joint military drills. Israel has not been invited to any military drills since 2010.
The process with Russia was different. Meetings between the TSK and the Russian Military Attaché in Ankara continued within government knowledge. The dialogue continuing in the military field entered a new phase with the Russian military delegation's visit to our country.
Turkey's sensitivity regarding Russia always maintained its significance, such that the rules of engagement that were announced after Syria downed our plane were reviewed after Russia launched military operations in Syria. Taking the Russia factor into consideration, a new mechanism was formed in terms of applying the rules of engagement. The authority to strike was taken from the pilot and given to the Air Forces Commander. In the meantime, a red line was established between the military command centers of the two countries. I received information that this line has not yet been used, but the line has not been cancelled. It may be used at any time. After the Russian plane was downed, President Erdoğan called his Russian counterpart. Putin did not answer his call, but Erdoğan said, “If we had known it was a Russian plane, we probably would have made the warning differently.” Due to Putin's attitude, Turkey's efforts were not enough to overcome the crisis. Turkey was not the only one negatively affected by the crisis during the four-and-a-half-month process that has been ongoing since November 24. The Russian economy, which was already in a bad state, was also negatively affected. The Russian economy, which took a heavy blow with the additional costs of the Syria operation and decreasing oil prices, gradually led its citizens to start complaining.
Russia is a very important trade partner for Turkey. The two countries are economically dependent on one another. They need to develop a new relationship model despite the plane crisis. Putin's stubbornness continues to harm both his own country and ours.
The Russian military delegation's visit to Turkey does not present major opportunities in terms of overcoming the crisis. No major meaning should be attributed to this visit. But it should not be considered a totally insignificant and ordinary visit, either. Ankara believes that this is one of the first signals that the crisis has entered a period of detente.
There is benefit in paying close attention. This visit might be a light at the end of the tunnel. After all, a little key opens the gate to a big fortress.