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Turkish drones boost Ukrainian spirits amid fears of Russian invasion

Turkey's drones are a big morale booster for Ukraine as a potential Russian invasion looms.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan watch honour guards passing by during a welcoming ceremony prior to their talks in Kiev on Feb. 3, 2020.

VINNITSYIA, Ukraine — As Western leaders scramble to stave off a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, a pair of air force colonels in this medieval town in southwest Ukraine are showering praise on Turkey’s globally coveted combat drones, the Bayraktar TBT 2.

“The Bayraktar drone provides precision targeting to the artillery to destroy a column of tanks. It’s a quality drone that does everything in real time in an automated system,” raved Lt. Col. Yuri Ignat, spokesperson for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine during an exclusive 70-minute interview with Al-Monitor.

“The drone will point to the coordinates and literally three seconds later the decision will be made to suppress and destroy the advancing troops. The drone is a weapon. The drone is a spy. It gives Ukraine a new, qualitative edge over the enemy,” he said.

“The drones make it harder for the Russians,” chimed in his fellow colonel who runs the Ukrainian military’s drone program. The colonel, who briefed Al-Monitor on condition that his name be withheld, said he spent three months training alongside other Ukrainian air force officers in 2019 at a facility in western Turkey owned by Baykar Makina, the private Turkish defense firm that produces the drones and is run by Selcuk Bayraktar, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s favorite son-in-law. “I loved it there,” the colonel said. 

“All in all, Ukraine has approximately 20 Bayraktar drones, but we will not stop there,” Ignat vowed.

Pressed to explain what he means by "approximately," Ignat coyly demurs. But his colleague revealed that Ukraine paid $60 million for an initial batch of six drones bought in 2018 and was given “a 30% discount” for six more that it’s acquired since.

“We want as many more Turkish drones as we can get,” said the colonel in charge of the drone program.

To the casual observer, their effusion may seem bizarre.

Turkish Bayraktar TBT 2 drones are seen in Ukraine in this undated picture. (Courtesy of the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Turkish Bayraktar TBT 2 drones are seen in Ukraine in this undated picture. (Courtesy of the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

The United States is Ukraine’s top ally. Since 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and fueled a bloody separatist insurgency in the country’s eastern Donbass region, the Pentagon has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, including Javelin anti-tank weapons and technical training to the former Soviet state. Though he denies it, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now thought to be weighing a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, triggering fears of a broader conflagration the likes of which have not been seen since the Second World War.

Should that happen the general consensus is that Ukraine will fall.

Yet, as US officials and members of Congress flock to Kyiv and wag admonishing fingers at Moscow, Turkey, not America, is commonly cited as the country that boosts Ukraine’s flagging spirits the most and whose actions “show that it isn’t afraid of Russia,” the drone program chief said.

Amid this sea of positive feelings, Turkey’s authoritarian president is scheduled to travel to the Ukrainian capital on Feb. 3 and meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, the comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky. The visit is meant to showcase deepening diplomatic, trade and security ties which the Black Sea neighbors call a “strategic partnership.” The agenda is ambitious. The leaders are supposed to sign a long-delayed free trade partnership and a host of other commercial and defense accords that will buttress an impressive array of existing ones.

Turkey’s unstinting diplomatic support for Ukraine over Crimea is seen as vital. Turkic Muslim Tatars were a majority until Stalin forced them out and millions of them resettled in Turkey. Ankara calls Russia’s annexation of Crimea an illegal occupation. Turkey is also a vocal backer of Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, which Putin appears willing to risk a war to stop.

Rarely mentioned but of symbolic significance is Turkey’s quiet support for the Ukraine Orthodox Church's decision to officially split from its Russian counterpart after 300 years. The move was approved by Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Istanbul-based patriarchate is regarded as “first among equals” among the world’s Orthodox churches.

Moscow was furious. Prior to the break, “The Moscow Patriarchate was the only internationally recognized Orthodox patriarchate in both Russia and Ukraine and that made it uniquely useful to Moscow,” a church insider told Al-Monitor. Its current Patriarch “Kirill I personified the idea of a Russian commonwealth, including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus,” he said.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople has no legal status in modern Turkey, giving the government unlimited agency to meddle in its affairs. Therefore, Ankara could have prevented the formal handing over in Istanbul in January 2019 of the charter of independence by Bartholomeos to Kyiv’s youthful Metropolitan Ephiphanus I. It didn’t.

The Russian Orthodox Church responded by cutting all ties with Constantinople. It was one of the biggest rifts in the history of the Christianity.

Turkey’s role in Orthodox Christian power plays, however, elicits scant interest in Ukraine’s boisterous media. And even as the threat from Moscow looms ever larger, the question of just how far Turkey can pursue friendship with Ukraine without upsetting its delicate balance with its frenemy Russia is brushed aside.

Local news programs brim instead with breathless punditry on how Turkish drones can help tip the balance against Russia, much as they did against Armenia in the latter’s war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave with Azerbaijan in late 2020.

Ukraine’s leaders encourage the hype in the hopes of bolstering national morale.

“We view strategic partnership with Turkey as a solid relationship which benefits both states. We attribute particular focus to our partnership in the defense industry field,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a written response to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

"Turkey’s sale of [unmanned aerial vehicles] is viewed not as a mere commercial deal, but a token of solidarity and support in difficult times when some countries keep putting forward arguments that strengthening the defenses and resilience of Ukraine may trigger Russia,” the ministry added. It was likely referring to Germany, which refuses to arm Ukraine.

A Russian made Mig-21 fighter jet showcased outside the Officers Club of the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Vinnitsyia Ukraine, Jan. 21 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

A Russian-made Mig-21 fighter jet is displayed outside the officers club of the Air Force Command of Ukraine, Vinnitsyia, Ukraine, Jan. 21 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

“Turkey is more clear, more honest,” said Igor Semyvolos, who heads the think tank Association of Middle East Studies, in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We have much more freedom with Turkish weapons. Turkey sold [the Bayraktar drones] to us with no strings attached. And Erdogan has guts. He doesn’t fear Putin,” Semyvolos said.

In many respects, Ukraine and Turkey are natural partners. Their shared interest in containing Russian expansionism is rooted in history. It stretches back to the 15th century, when the Crimean Khanate became a vassal of the Ottomans and through the 16th, when Roxelana, a slave girl from Rohatyn in western Ukraine became a favorite of Suleiman the Magnificent. For several decades the Sublime Porte reigned over large chunks of southern Ukraine in a string of alliances with Ukraine’s Cossacks against Polish kings and Russian tsars.

Few Ukrainians knew this because their erstwhile Soviet overlords airbrushed the Ottoman period out of Ukraine’s history. “They rewrote it to say, ‘The Russians came to these wild lands and established Novorossiya,’” said Petro Kraluk, a Ukrainian academic who specializes in the Ottomans. “The Turkish presence is not mentioned in history books [taught in Ukrainian schools] to this day,” he told Al-Monitor.

That was until 2014, when “The Magnificent Century” hit the screens. The fact that Roxelana held so much sway over the Ottomans’ longest reigning sultan was brought home to millions of Ukrainians by the sizzling Turkish TV series dramatizing the intrigues of the imperial court.

“Succession was everything in Ottoman politics at the time, and by playing this game ruthlessly and with skill, she effectively decided who would be the next sultan,” said Christopher de Bellaigue, author of "The Lion House," a richly documented portrait of Suleiman’s rule.

A promotional image for "The Magnificent Century." (Tims Productions)

A promotional image for "The Magnificent Century." (Tims Productions)

In modern times Turkey tended to view Ukraine as a subset of its relations with Russia.

Russia’s Crimean land grab in 2014 was a wake-up call for Turkey, one that shrank Turkey’s control of the Black Sea and shifted its gaze to Kyiv. Until then, for many Turks, Ukraine meant "beautiful girls" and for Ukrainians, Turkey meant "beach holidays," according to Yevgeniya Gaber, a leading Ukrainian scholar of Turkish affairs and a senior fellow at Carleton University’s Center of Modern Turkish Studies.

Gaber, who worked at the Ukrainian Embassy in Ankara between 2014 and 2018, said, “Relations were steeped in mutual ignorance for a long time. For example, we had to explain that Ukrainian was a distinct language from Russian.”

“Things are very different now,” she told Al-Monitor. Visa-free travel between the two countries is gradually melting mutually held stereotypes.

Zelensky, who once derided Erdogan as a “cockroach with a mustache” in the televised serial “Servant of the People,” which catapulted him to national fame, headed for a Turkish beach following his landslide victory in April 2019. Since then, he has made four official trips to Turkey to meet with Erdogan.

Ukraine’s first Jewish president now looks upon Erdogan like a father, Semyvolos contended. “Zelensky goes to visit Erdogan like he goes to an energy source. He comes back recharged.”

Back at the Air Force Command in Vinnytsia, all eyes are on a plot of land in the city of Vasylkiv, which lies 53 kilometers (33 miles) southwest of the capital. It’s been allocated for a factory to co-produce Turkish drones. Will Erdogan travel there for a groundbreaking ceremony? “We certainly hope so,” said the air force's spokesperson Ignat.

He may be disappointed.

The center of the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Vinnitsyia Ukraine, Jan. 21, 2022. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

A view of the recreational center of the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Vinnitsyia Ukraine, Jan. 21, 2022. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Erdogan is a risk taker but he is also famously pragmatic. He refused to join US and EU sanctions on Russia following its occupation of Crimea. He did not show up at the first summit of the much-heralded Crimea Platform held in Kyiv in September, dispatchinga his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, instead.

His offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine may be as much about signaling Turkish neutrality in the event of conflict as it is to restore Turkey’s value in Western eyes as a “problem solver,” reckons Gaber.

If anything, it's NATO’s protective shield that allows Turkey to test the limits of Russian acceptance of its military forays into places like Libya and Syria and even in its “near abroad.”

But Ukraine is Putin’s red line and Erdogan is well aware that he can push only so far. For all the excited chatter about Turkey restoring its pro-Western credentials thanks to Ukraine, the last thing Washington wants is for Turkey to provide Russia with any pretext to attack Ukraine. 

The challenge for Washington is "how to deal with the risk of Turkey selling Ukraine military systems that will give Moscow a casus belli without providing any corresponding military protection," noted Aaron Stein, director for research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in a recent essay.

Ukraine is even warier. It wasn’t until Oct. 26 last year that Ukraine used a Bayraktar drone in combat for the first time. It was responding to the killing of one its soldiers by Russian-backed forces firing artillery shells from the village of Hranitne in breakaway Donetsk. Footage of the drone strike was shared by the Ukrainian military.

“The strike, using the lowest charge, was not directed at personnel but at the D30 Howitzer, prohibited by the Minsk Agreement, that was shelling Ukrainian positions. The goal was to stop the shelling,” Ignat stressed. He was referring to a set of accords signed between Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk, the other pro-separatist region in the Donbass, in 2014 and 2015.

“Yes, there is an order [from the General Command] not to provoke,” Ignat acknowledged, and the Turkish drones “remain strictly within the borders” delimited by Minsk. “Yet, every day there is artillery shelling; snipers are working. Ukraine cannot look at this calmly and responds,” the spokesperson said.

So does Russia. Putin called the move a provocation in a phone call with Erdogan. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned Cavusoglu in a subsequent call to take Moscow’s concerns about “the militarization” of Ukraine “as seriously as possible.”

The Cathedral Church and Mosque - Kamianets-Podilskyi (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

The Cathedral Church and Mosque of Kamianets-Podilskyi is seen in this photo taken Jan. 21, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Putin’s capacity to bloody Turkey’s nose when he deems it in Russia’s interests is not in doubt. When Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet over Syria in November 2015, Putin suspended charter flights carrying millions of Russian tourists to Turkey and halted imports of Turkish tomatoes. In February 2020, Russian jets struck Turkish positions in the rebel-held province of Idlib in northern Syria, killing 37 Turkish soldiers. Soon after the Ukrainians fired their Bayraktar drone, Russia, citing “excessive presence of pesticides,” stopped buying Turkish tangerines.

As for Turkey’s much vaunted intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, its drones and military advisers were pivotal in helping Azerbaijan wrest back territories occupied by Armenia for over three decades. But Ukraine is different. According to Putin, it’s basically Russian, as laid out in an essay published on the Kremlin's website on July 12 last year. Would Russia have sat on its hands had Turkey been acting in favor of a democratically elected, pro-Western reformer like Zelensky rather than Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, a corrupt autocrat with strong ties to the Kremlin? Probably not.

“Turkish drones won’t be a game changer; they won’t be as impactful as in Karabakh if we talk about a full blown invasion,” said military analyst Sergiy Zgurets. “If the Russian army attacks from six different points as suggested by its force posture in the east, the Black Sea and on the Belarussian border, it will be hard for Ukraine to resist,” Zgurets told Al-Monitor.

“Nobody is going to save us. That is why [the government] built up the Turkey angle. They built an illusion,” said Iliya Kusa, an international relations analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kyiv-based think tank. “People tend to see in Erdogan what they want to see for themselves, a man who sticks to his word, who elevated Turkey to regional superpower status.” In the event of war, “Turkey will stand neutral,” Kusa predicted. Erdogan will certainly try.

The effects of war would be harsh and immediate for Turkey as it grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades. Further Russian control over Ukraine would mean even further Russian dominance of the Black Sea. It would also place Turkey under intense US and European pressure to act in concert with its NATO allies in backing a slew of punitive measures against Russia, something Erdogan would be loath to do. Russia was Turkey’s 10th largest export market in 2021 and supplies around 40% of its natural gas needs, including through the recently launched TurkStream pipeline.

For Ukraine, “Turk Steam was a stab in the back,” Kusa said. The Turkish leg of a pipeline carrying Russian gas through Ukraine and on to Turkey and Bulgaria now lies idle, sapping Kyiv of strategic relevance and transit fees.

But Ankara’s commercial ties with Ukraine are growing too. Turkey became Ukraine’s fifth largest trading partner last year as volume hit a record $5 billion. Officials say they want to double this figure but fear of an influx of Turkish goods like cement and textiles has triggered worries among local businessmen, with some openly opposing the proposed free trade deal that has been in the works since 2011.

Their concerns may resonate less in the current climate.

A Turkish truck carrying commercial goods on the road between Kyiv and Khmelnitsky, southwest Ukraine, April 3, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

A Turkish truck carryies commercial goods on the road between Kyiv and Khmelnitsky, southwest Ukraine, April 3, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

For Ismet Yazici, the Turkish CEO of Lifecell, Ukraine’s third largest mobile operator, the prospect of renewed conflict is real.

Lifecell is wholly owned by Turkey’s largest cellular provider Turkcell and employs 1,100 Ukrainian nationals. In an interview with Al-Monitor at Lifecell’s headquarters in Kyiv, Yazici said the company had invested over $3 billion since launching operations 13 years ago.

This figure represents a whopping 95% of all Turkish investment in Ukraine.

However, the conflict in Donbass was a big setback. Lifecell was forced to pull out from what had been its most lucrative market in Ukraine. “We were very strong in the east,” Yazici recalled. “We lost our building. [The Russian-backed separatists] switched off our base station and we lost a million customers. The impact in Crimea was harsh as well.”

“If there is another physical attack [by Russia] our priority is to ensure that our customers have access to [communication] towers,” Yazici said. The towers would be obvious targets for Russia, including cyberattacks.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s military dealings with Ukraine are raising eyebrows among some Western governments. Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 Russian missiles, which triggered US sanctions, has prompted questions about Ankara’s commitment to NATO but proved fortuitous for Kyiv. The congressional ban on foreign military sales to Turkey prompted it to turn to Ukraine to provide engines for its drones.

Some NATO diplomats suggest that Turkey is serving as Moscow’s stalking horse within the alliance’s ranks.

Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, ROSATOM, is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, on the Mediterranean coast. Ukraine possesses nuclear technology from its days as a Soviet republic when nuclear warheads were deployed on its soil.

“We get questions about the extent to which our cooperation with Turkey will develop. We tell the Europeans if we don’t cooperate with Turkey, then Turkey will cooperate with Russia," Gaber said, adding that this includes helping Turkish nuclear technicians and engineers “better understand what they are getting from Russia.” As for what Ukraine gets from Russia, de-escalation or war, the answer remains terrifyingly unclear. The true limits of Kyiv's alliance with Ankara will be set by the outcome.