Selmin Seda Coşkun, Ph.D
ColumnThe conflict between the Russian-backed forces and the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Donbass region of Ukraine since April 2014 is still active today. After Russia made a military build-up in this region, Turkey has started to be indirectly involved in the escalating tension between Russia and Ukraine with the unmanned aerial vehicles/drones (UAVs) that it sold to Ukraine.
On October 26, the Ukrainian Armed Forces used Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial systems purchased from Turkey for the first time to neutralize an artillery position of Russian-backed separatist groups. Turkish drones, which were previously used for observation and intelligence by Ukraine, were used for direct destruction against Russia this time. Expressing its unease about Turkey's recent position, Russia interpreted the situation as a step that would fuel instability in the region. Turkey, on the other hand, continues to criticize Russia's annexation of Crimea, with which it cooperates closely in the fields of defense and energy, and continues to say that it supports Ukraine's territorial integrity.
There is also a military-strategic dimension in terms of Russia and Turkey. The considerable success of the Turkish UAVs during the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and especially in Nagorno-Karabakh and their serious effectiveness against Russian weapon systems has already been noticed before. Therefore, in case of military and strategic conditions are not sufficient, it is seen that Russian weapon systems have weak points against Turkish-made UAVs. This situation aggravates the Russian attitude towards Turkey, which is both the sole NATO ally to supply the S-400 strategic system and an exporter of armed drones to countries such as Ukraine and Poland.
An important point to note in Donbass is that the Turkish-made UAVs used by Ukraine are the drones with suitable equipments against lightly armoured targets. That is, the military equipment in a higher variant that gives an advantage to the Russian militia forces is not yet in the hands of Ukraine. However, the UAVs used in Karabakh, which was said to have brought success, were of a heavier variant. This means that Turkey has not made the sale of UAVs that brought success in Karabakh to Ukraine (yet?).
So, whether or not these heavy equipments are sold to Ukraine or will be made at a later date seems to be very important in terms of relations between Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Because it is not difficult to guess that heavy-range equipments will provide a serious advantage over pro-Russian militia groups.
RUSSIA MAY INCREASE OPERATIONAL ACCELERATION IN UKRAINE
If the Ukrainian Armed Forces continues the systematic use of UAVs against pro-Russian militias or increases the operational momentum in UAV activity, there is a possibility that Russia will deploy its military capability at a higher level in Ukraine. It also seems likely that Russia will respond to Ukraine's UAV supplier, Turkey. Therefore, what is happening in Donbass these days is very important to consider the possibility of deepening the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
NATO TOUCHES UKRAINE THROUGH TURKEY
On the other hand, Ukraine, which feels a wide range of Russian threats, would like to see Turkey as a reliable strategic partner. The Ministry of Defence of Ukraine signed a $69 million agreement with Turkey on 14 December 2020 for the production and technology sharing of corvettes (light warships) and UAVs for the Ukrainian army. This was the first direct foreign trade agreement signed by Ukraine in the field of defense in the ministry's history. Defense agreements between Turkey and Ukraine boost Ukraine to transition from the Soviet army system to modern NATO standards.
Since the war between Russia and Ukraine that started in 2014, Ukraine has been seeking its own political and strategic position in the region and international arena. Trying to become a member of NATO, Ukraine is striving to transform its army and weapons bearing the traces of the Soviet era into a modern system at NATO standards. However, apart from a few countries in the European Union such as Poland, Romania, Czechia, and the Baltic countries, there is no country that can meet Ukraine's technology transfer needs. This makes Turkey an important source for the Ukrainian region.
COOPERATION WITH TURKEY IS AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF KIEW’S FOREIGN POLICY
What are the factors that enable Ukraine and Turkey to cooperate in the field of defense? It is mentioned that there are aspects that complement each other by combining their capabilities between the two countries.
While there is progress in digital technologies in Turkey, a development in production technologies is processing in Ukraine. Here, it is clearly seen that the two countries have opened the door to cooperation in order to combine their capabilities and mass-produce new modern weapons. For Ukraine, cooperation with Turkey seems to have become one of the most important elements of Kiev's foreign policy.
It is known that the Ukrainian Armed Forces currently has 12 Bayraktar TB2 UAVs in their inventory and they are planning to procure 24 more Bayraktar TB2s in the coming period. Kiev also wants to produce its own UAV with the support of Ankara. It was also announced by the Ukrainian Defence Minister Andrey Taran that the Turkish company, which is the manufacturer of drones, will establish a maintenance and training centre in Ukraine. Turkish company Baykar Defence also develops joint engine production within the framework of its exports to Ukraine.
Statements from Kiev and Ankara show that there is a desire to deepen the relations between the two countries. It is not surprising, then, that the Ukrainian army's use of Turkish UAVs is considered legitimate, as it is used against the separatist militias within the border. However, it is obvious that cooperation with Ukraine will create problems in the context of Russia-Turkey relations.
CONFLICT OF INTERESTS
However, when the issue is considered on a broad geopolitical axis stretching from Syria and Libya to Karabakh, it would not be misleading to claim that the interests of Russia and Turkey come across. The area of possible action from Russia towards Turkey is the city of Idlib, located in the northwest of Syria and which has been at the center of conflicts for a long time. On the other hand, there is no sign that Turkey's cooperation with Ukraine in the field of defense might stop right now. Therefore, it can be underlined that Turkey considers defense exports as an element of its foreign policy objectives in the regions to which it attaches geopolitical importance.