Nearly three years after Turkey secured an apology from Israel for the boarding of the Mavi Marmara off Gaza, the two sides finally normalized ties on Sunday, enabling the two strategic powers to restore a working relationship at a time of great geopolitical stress in the region. Less expected but more significant, the Kremlin announced Monday that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a letter apologizing for the downing of a Russian Su-24 military aircraft near Turkey's border with Syria. The Russians had long insisted on the apology as a prerequisite for restoring ties. With the apology out of the way, important issues ranging from Turkish facilitation of a NATO naval presence on the Black Sea to Russia's blocking of Turkey's position in Syria can be negotiated. Deeply divergent interests, however, will limit Turkish-Russian relations.
After the Russian jet's downing, Moscow suspended visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Russia, restricted imports of Turkish goods, tightened limitations on Turkish entities doing business in Russia and discouraged Russian tourism to Turkey. In Syria, Russia beefed up its air defenses, carried out heavy airstrikes on Turkish-backed rebels and indicated it would shoot down Turkish aircraft overflying Syria. Moscow thereby limited Ankara's military options in Syria, on account of the fact that Turkey has no desire to clash militarily with Russia.
Most dangerously for Ankara, Russia deliberately courted the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) faction, facilitating its military operations and — at least according to Ankara — perhaps even supplying weapons to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Turkish separatist group. This, plus Washington's preference for cooperating with the YPG against the Islamic State, limited Turkey's ability to block the YPG's continued accumulation of territory just across the Syrian border, making it increasingly amenable to a deal with Russia.
Moscow has its own reasons to want a thaw in relations with Turkey. Convincing the Turks to cease their support for rebel factions in Syria is one. More important, Moscow would like to limit Turkey's cooperation in NATO's plans to beef up the alliance's presence on Russia's borders. As a prime example, Turkey is well placed by geography and its naval capabilities to play a role in NATO's plan to build a Black Sea force.
Ultimately, however, larger forces will limit the extent of any Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Ankara is unlikely to take any measures that significantly undermine NATO, which it sees as its strongest guarantor of security against the Russian colossus to its north. Turkey will therefore remain a geopolitical keystone to any Western effort to counterbalance Russia from the Balkans to the Black Sea to the Caucasus. Ankara has also developed deep ties with Syria's Sunni rebels, supporting them against Alawite-controlled Damascus and its Russian ally. Ethnic Turkmen Syrian factions have emerged as a crucial component in Ankara's strategy to contain the YPG's rise. So while Russian-Turkish relations can be expected to improve after the apology announced on Monday, they will do so only to a point.
Russia will meanwhile continue using the Syrian battleground as leverage in its broader standoff with the West, and the level of Turkey's participation in that standoff is concerning to Russia. At the same time, Turkey has an imperative to limit Kurdish expansion in its borderlands, and this gives Russia powerful leverage with Turkey so long as Moscow remains active in Syria. The apology is a small overture, and major differences remain. But there is now room for both sides to negotiate on everything from tactical coordination on the Syrian battlefield to trying to revive ambitious energy projects such as the Turkish Stream pipeline, or even setting boundaries and negotiating overlapping spheres of influence like those found in Nagorno-Karabakh.