In the recent escalation between Russia and Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unusually outspoken in his support for Kyiv. He hosted his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in Ankara as Russia massed an unprecedented number of troops near Ukraine’s border. Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and even its ambition to join NATO. Turkey and Ukraine also pledged to continue their military cooperation, with Turkish drones making their way onto the battlefield in Donbas.
The Turkish-Russian relationship has always been a complicated one – relying on the chemistry between the two leaders instead of an institutional framework.
But Ukraine has emerged as an outlier in this picture. From the beginning, Turkey supported Ukraine’s independence from Russia and opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea – but not too loudly. Ankara did not want Ukraine to become an irritant in the delicate Turkish-Russian relationship, and limited its support for Kyiv to rhetoric, shying away from sanctions on Russia or military support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed forces in Donbas.
This now seems to be changing, in part because Ukraine presents itself as a useful counterweight in Turkey’s balancing act among great powers – and as leverage against Russia.
Turkish drones played a key role in pushing back the Syrian regime in Idlib in March 2020, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in autumn 2020.
Turkey sold six Bayraktar drones to Ukraine in 2019. And Ukraine is interested in purchasing 48 more. The countries are also discussing joint production of corvette ships and AN-178 military transport aircraft. They signed in 2020 an agreement on the joint production of turbine engines, including those for military aviation. With the drones headed to the conflict in Donbas, and possibly other Turkish equipment to the Sea of Azov, Turkey knows there is no better publicity for its ambitious defence programme.
Through Ukraine, Turkey can remind the world that it is still part of the West – that it is a NATO ally
Admittedly, there are also historical reasons why Turkey supports Ukraine. Ankara has never recognised the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine views the relationship with Turkey as mutually beneficial and, accordingly, has invested in it for several years. As Russia develops Crimea into a military stronghold, Turkey can become a key Ukrainian security partner in the Black Sea region – particularly given Turkish membership of NATO. Kyiv values Ankara’s political support and military cooperation: Ukraine can sell Turkey its know-how on sensitive defence technology at a time Turkey has a relatively hard time dealing with Western suppliers – in return for Turkish drones, which are effective in the war in Donbas.
Relations between countries are not formed or analyzed based on friendship or enmity, it is political interests and the course of global developments that either brings states together or pulls them apart. In Ukraine and Turkey’s case, both have a vested interest in countering Russia in the Black Sea, and relations between the nations are now on the cusp of becoming more strategic.
Moscow is also a variable in the equation. Turkey-Russia relations are not described as black or white but rather gray, as Ankara helps protect the balance between Europe and Russia. Ukraine’s relations with Russia were further strained when Russia illegally occupied the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, which is Ukrainian territory. This was a development that added a new dimension to Turkey-Ukraine relations, paving the way for their current state.
According to Yusuf Akbaba, a defense industry researcher, Russia’s presence in Crimea is a security problem for both Kyiv and Ankara, thus the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula has brought the once distant countries closer together.
Acquiring NATO Equipment
The defense agreements and cooperation between Ukraine and Turkey help to modernize and bring Ukraine’s post-Soviet military systems up to NATO standards, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry signed a series of agreements on December 14 2020 with the Turkish side on the production and technology transfer of naval corvettes and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), which were the first direct foreign trade deals inked in the defense field in the ministry’s history.
The Ukrainian army has Turkey-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) in its inventory, which are operated by the land forces and the naval forces who recently acquired their first batch. Kyiv also inked a contract to purchase warships from Turkey.
Turkey’s Ada-class corvettes, which were developed under the National Ship (MILGEM) project and for which Kyiv most recently signed a purchase deal with Ankara, Ukraine will make progress in transfer integration technology.
Close ties, in this case, initially mean close defense relations, which both countries need due to the geographies they are located in.
Akbaba said Turkey provides Ukraine with NATO-standard defense gear at economical prices, which makes the country’s equipment a good alternative for Kyiv that is struggling to bring its economy back from the brink.
Besides, he noted, Turkey is open to developing joint projects instead of selling ready-to-use systems like those offered by European countries. It is also open to manufacturing Turkish defense products on Ukrainian soil – with technology transfers included – carrying the country a step ahead as a potential seller.
Defense relations between the countries go beyond Turkey providing UCAVs and constructing naval ships as Ukrainian companies have many products to offer too.
Echoing many Ukrainian officials, Akbaba said, in line with demand, subsystems produced by the Ukrainian defense industry can be integrated into Turkish products.
Ukraine will also provide Turkey major parts, one of them being helicopter engines. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) most recently announced that it will use an engine purchased from Ukraine in its heavy class attack helicopter, T929 or ATAK 2. The chopper’s engines will be produced under a newly signed contract with engine-producing giant Motor Sich.
The fact that Ukraine is supplying the engines for the ATAK 2 helicopters until the domestic engine is ready indicates that Ukraine has become an alternative supplier to the West for Turkey, according to Akbaba. He underlined that Ukrainian engines are also used in Turkish drone magnate Baykar’s latest cutting-edge combat drone, Akıncı.
“Joint engine projects with Ukraine will increase even more,” he said.
The agreement and technology transfer is in line with embargoes imposed against Turkey receiving such products.
Particularly in engine technologies and space, Akbaba said that Turkey aims to transfer technology from Ukraine “because in these areas, Turkey is frequently facing embargoes.” Ukraine also needs technology transfers, especially in electronic components of air systems and for certain products to replace Soviet-era defense gear. “A win-win relationship is maintained,” Akbaba said.
A similar development also applies to the MILGEM (National Ship) warships – Turkey’s Ada-class corvettes that Kyiv sealed a deal to procure. Ukraine-made turbines will be used on MILGEM corvettes tailored for the Ukrainian navy, Akbaba said but predicted that the West will likely impose a turbine embargo on Turkey. Turkey can circumvent the embargoes by purchasing turbines from Ukraine, which according to Akbaba, is the most important factor in Ankara building warships for Kyiv.
“We can assume that a new partnership has already begun.”
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