Accessibility links

Erdogan's Letter Smooths Way For Turkish-Russian Fence-Mending

  • Charles Recknagel
  • Merhat Sharipzhan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin

After months of icy relations between Moscow and Ankara over Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane, an ambiguously written letter appears to have set the stage for restoring good relations.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin telephones his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 29, it will be on the heels of press headlines in both countries that quote the same text in the letter as a victory for their side.

The letter in question, sent by Erdogan to Putin and made public on June 28, expressed the Turkish leader's condolences to the family of the Russian pilot killed in November after his attack aircraft was shot down in a disputed violation of Turkish air space.

"Erdogan Apologizes To Putin For Downed Su-24," trumpeted Russia's official news agency TASS on June 28. Another news agency, Vesti, used almost exactly the same wording: "Erdogan Apologizes For Su-24."

But Turkey's daily Hurriyet saw things differently. "Presidential Press Sources: No Apology," headlined the Turkish paper. Almost the same words appear in the headline used by Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency: "No Apologies In Erdogan's Letter."

At the heart of the polar-opposite interpretations is language in Erdogan's letter that seems almost tailor-made to be spun differently by Ankara and the Kremlin to their publics.

According to the Kremlin's official website, Erdogan wrote that "I once again want to express my sympathies and deepest condolences to the family of the deceased pilot and say 'excuse me.'"

But according to the Turkish text quoted by Hurriyet, the phrase was not "excuse me," but, literally: "I say do not feel offended."

Trust The Turcologist?

"Sorry" or "do not feel offended" -- these are phrases that in many languages can be used interchangeably and yet also be seen as quite different depending on how the parties interpret them.

When some Russian journalists expressed doubts that they might indeed mean the same thing in this case, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured them on June 28 there could be no doubt.

"The [Russian word] "apology" corresponds to the Turkish language word 100 percent," Peskov said. "The letter contains both words expressing regrets and the phrase 'excuse me'...I am, in fact, an expert, I am actually a Turcologist."

Peskov is indeed a fluent speaker of Turkish, though perhaps not as fluent as Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who said Erdogan wrote to "express his regrets." According to Anadolu, Kalin did not explicitly confirm Erdogan had apologized over the incident.

That leaves open the possibility that while Turkey expresses condolences to the victim’s family, that is not the same thing as apologizing for shooting down the aircraft, which Ankara maintains violated Turkish airspace but which Russia says occurred over Syrian airspace.

Both Russia and Turkey took tough positions over the downing, with Putin calling it "a stab in the back administered by the accomplices of terrorists" and Erdogan warning that "if another violation of our aerial border happens, we can respond in the same way." As Russia demanded an apology and compensation, both refused by Ankara, Moscow escalated the crisis by slapping trade sanctions on Turkey, forbidding Russian tour agencies from selling Turkish vacation packages to Russian citizens, and sending antiaircraft missiles to Syria capable of shooting down Turkish planes.

Alparslan Celik (Hurriyet)

Alparslan Celik (Hurriyet)

As Erdogan’s letter has now smoothed the way for Putin to telephone him, neither the Kremlin nor Ankara has come out publicly to challenge the other's interpretation of the letter. Instead, Peskov said that Putin would call Erdogan at Moscow's own initiative, suggesting the smooth rolling out of a tit-for-tat process that could put the crisis behind them.

Exactly what the next steps will be are not yet certain. But on June 28 the Turkish side made clear it is not ready to offer Moscow compensation for the loss of its plane and pilot.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on June 28 that Ankara was not offering recompense because it already has launched legal proceedings against the individual allegedly responsible for killing Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov on November 24. According to news reports, Peshkov was shot dead after he ejected from his plane and was parachuting to the ground over the Syrian village of Yamadi, close to the Turkish border.

Ankara on March 31 arrested a Turkish national, Alparslan Celik, who was commanding Turkoman Syrian fighters in the area at the time of Peshkov's death. Moscow had repeatedly demanded Celik be arrested and extradited to Russia but Turkey has yet to say publicly whether it will hand him over.

Erdogan's letter is not the first peace offering he has extended to Moscow in an effort to thaw ties despite the deep freeze they went into following the plane's downing. Just days after the incident, Erdogan said that Turkey was "truly saddened by this incident" and "we wish it hadn't happened as such."

More recently, on June 12, he sent a congratulatory message to Putin to mark Russia's national day and express a wish for improved ties. The full contents of the message were not made public but Ankara said at the time it hoped Erdogan's gesture would help launch a normalization process.

Those earlier efforts did not produce any immediate improvement in Turkish-Russian relations.