By Denis Pinchuk and Ece Toksabay
MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – The Kremlin sought to dampen Turkey’s hopes for a swift restoration of normal relations on Tuesday, a day after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan expressed regret over the downing of a Russian warplane last year.
The Russian jet was shot down, with the loss of the pilot, in November while taking part in the Kremlin’s military campaign in Syria. Ankara said it acted lawfully because the plane had crossed into Turkish air space; Moscow denied that happened.
The incident triggered Russian sanctions against Turkey that have damaged trade and tourism.
After writing to Russian President Vladimir Putin to voice his regret on Monday, Erdogan said he believed Ankara would normalize relations with Moscow “rapidly”. But the Kremlin struck a more cautious tone on Tuesday.
“One should not think it possible to normalize everything within a few days, but work in this direction will continue,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
“President Putin has expressed more than once his willingness to maintain good relations with Turkey and the Turkish people,” Peskov said. “Now a very important step has been made.”
Putin and Erdogan will hold a telephone conversation at Moscow’s initiative on Wednesday, Peskov said.
Putin has said an apology from Erdogan was necessary to repair relations. Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the Turkish president had expressed regret over the shooting in a letter to Putin, but added that this was not an apology.
Even as ties between the two countries improve, Kalin added, sticking points over Syria and other issues would continue.
“In the coming period, Turkey’s ties with Russia will enter a normalization phase. Our policies on Ukraine, Syria and Crimea will not change, we don’t agree with Russia on these areas but we will continue to discuss these issues,” he told reporters.
In the Syrian conflict Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad while Turkey and its Western allies support groups opposed to him.
Ankara said it shot down the plane because it entered Turkish airspace, an allegation Moscow denies. The Russian pilot ejected from the plane but was killed by gunfire from rebels on the ground in Syria as he parachuted down to earth.
As well as an official apology, Moscow has also said it wants Turkey to pay compensation for the incident, in which the Russian pilot ejected but was killed by rebel gunfire on the ground in Syria as he parachuted down to earth.
Kalin said Turkey may pay aid to “relieve Russian pain” over the shooting but he said that would not constitute compensation, which would require a legal ruling or an agreement.
Turkey says legal proceedings are underway against an individual allegedly responsible for the killing of the pilot.
Turkey has been hard hit by the Russian sanctions, particularly in its key tourism sector. Data on Tuesday showed that tourist arrivals in Turkey saw their biggest drop in at least 22 years in May, with the number of Russians down by more than 90 percent.
Turkey’s expression of regret to Russia on Monday came as it also announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel after a six-year rupture.
Both moves appear to be aimed at mending Turkey’s sense of isolation on the world stage, though Kalin denied they represented a big policy shift on Ankara’s part.
“Solving these issues allowed us to return to the normal format. Turkish foreign policy is not going through a grand revision,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and David Dolan; Editing by Christian Lowe and Gareth Jones)