As the Ukrainian news media buzzes with speculation that Ukraine may be planning to reclaim control of Donbass by Turkish drones, direct involvement by Turkey in the Ukraine-Russia conflict would cost Ankara dearly in its relations with Moscow.
Following the recent Azeri success against the Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Ukrainian news media is abuzz with speculation that the Ukrainian army may be planning to reclaim the country’s eastern Donbass region controlled by Russia-backed separatists, using the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones believed to have been a game changer in the Azeri-Armenian war.
Observers are asking whether Ukraine could repeat the Karabakh example to win back territories it lost to Russia and the separatists in 2014 and further escalate the conflict over the Black Sea Basin. Some reports went so far as to say that Ukraine might be planning to use these drones to surveil Russian-annexed Crimea and Kerch Strait linking Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
During his visit to Turkey on Dec. 2, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba Dmytro made no attempt to conceal Kyiv's expectations of Ankara. He said that his country expects Ankara to assume a “leadership role” in the Crimean conflict, pointing out Turkey’s historical ties with, which was part of the Ottoman Empire until the 18th century.
Increasingly militarized relations between Ankara and Kyiv inevitably leads Turkey to become more involved in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Aiming to counterbalance Russian supremacy in the Black Sea, Turkey has long tried to improve its relations with Ukraine, a policy that was also in line with NATO’s objectives to increase its clout in the Black Sea region. Although Ankara didn’t allow the annexation to upend Turkish-Russian cooperation in several fields, Turkey hasn’t really stomached the annexation and has maintained its support for Crimea’s return to Ukraine.
The conflict has been a catalyst for increasing defense ties between Ankara and Kyiv. Some also consider this cooperation Ankara’s way of pressuring Moscow in its own backyard as retaliation for Russian efforts to undermine Turkey’s agenda in the wars in Libya and Syria, where Ankara and Moscow support rival groups.
The groundwork for the advanced military collaboration between the two countries was laid out by a raft of military deals in 2015 under the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, who was in favor of using hard power to deal with Russia-backed separatists in Donbass.
Ukraine purchased six TB2 drones in 2018 along with three ground data terminals and 200 high precision missiles under a $69 million contract.
Although Poroshenko's successor, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, has been advocating a political solution through dialogue with Russia, Kyiv has continued to advance military cooperation with Ankara, with a new set of military cooperation deals signed between the two countries in 2019 and 2020. The two countries signed a military and finance cooperation agreement on Feb. 3 and a military framework agreement on Oct. 16 during Zelensky’s visit to Turkey.
In November 2020, chief of the armed forces Ruslan Khomchak announced that Kyiv was considering buying an additional five Bayraktar drones in 2021. Kyiv has also supplied 12 AI-450T turboprop motors for the Turkish Akinci drones in the past two years.
In another milestone this year, Ukraine's state-owned defense manufacturer and Turkey’s Baykar Makina, manufacturer of Akinci and Bayraktar drones, have decided to form a joint venture that will allow Ukraine to domestically produce as many as 48 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones. Many believe the project could help Turkey bypass possible Western arms-sale sanctions.
The Ukrainian army tested the TB2 drones for the first time in Khmelnytsky against the pro-Russian separatists in March 2019. The pro-Russian groups claimed at the time that drones were shelved due to technical complications. Yet following their success in the Libyan, Syrian and Karabakh conflicts, the TB2 drones seem to be taking the center stage in Ukrainian military strategy.
Turkey’s air force commander visited Kyiv in early November to discuss ways to boost cooperation on TB2 drones and the training of drone operators with his Ukrainian counterparts.
On Nov. 19, Ukraine dispatched TB2s to Kramatorsk airbase for additional tests. On Nov. 27, the Ukrainian army conducted a military drill near the Sea of Azov to test the drones' reconnaissance and target capabilities. Some news reports claimed that drones were also sent on reconnaissance flights near Crimea on Nov. 23.
The flourishing cooperation between Ankara and Kyiv and speculation about the use of Turkish drones in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have come under close scrutiny in the Russian media. RIA Novosti reported that the Armenia-Azerbaijan war over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region set an example for the Ukrainian generals who closely watched Azeri tactics in the region. The pro-Russian separatists are reportedly concerned that the lessons of Karabakh could inspire the Ukrainian army to launch a military operation in Donbass.
Ukraine’s recent deployment of tanks, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft systems and rocket-propelled grenades near Donbass has further fueled these fears, as Turkish TB2 drones taking off from Kramatorsk airbase some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Donbass can easily hit pro-Russian separatist positions in the region. In addition to the Turkish drones, Ukraine announced on Dec. 2 that US MQ-9 Reaper combat drones would make their debut in the Ukrainian skies during a military drill.
Citing the pro-Russian separatists controlling the Donetsk region, the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported in late November that Turkey also dispatched military advisers to Ukraine in “preparation for a joint Turkish-Ukrainian strike.” The news site went as far as to claim that the two countries are working on a plan to reclaim control of Crimea along with Donbass and that Turkey could send Syrian mercenaries to support the Ukrainian forces.
Some believe that the Ukrainian army could reclaim control of Luhansk and Donetsk, pointing out that the pro-Russian separatists lack a proper air defense system. Yet these arguments overlook the Russian factor. The Russians have begun to describe Luhansk and Donetsk as the “new Russia.” Unlike Armenia, Donbass region shares a border with Russia and Moscow has heavily reinforced this border with a heavy military deployment.
Furthermore, Russia has granted Russian citizenship to almost one million residents in both regions, a move from its playbook during the 2008 Georgia war. When Georgia had launched an operation against the pro-Russian separatists on its northern border, Moscow got involved in the conflict under the pretext of defending its citizens. The Kremlin can use the same tactic in the event of a possible Donbass operation. Russian President Vladmir Putin also openly declared that Moscow wouldn’t allow a Ukrainian military intervention in Donbass.
Meanwhile, the Russian media is abuzz with warnings against a possible Karabakh-inspired move in Donbass. Pointing out the border Russia shares with Donbass, Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov argued that the Karabakh conflict cannot be repeated in Donbass. According to Pushkov, while Azerbaijan had Turkey’s direct support, Ukraine could only depend on indirect NATO and US support in such a scenario.
Claiming that Zelensky, who is under pressure by Ukrainian nationalists, was preparing for a war in Donbass with the support of Turkey, Russian analyst Aleksander Kots argued that Erdogan wouldn’t dare openly confront Russia. Russia has several reasons to prevent such an intervention and could easily do so, thus Ukrainian officials would want to gauge Russia's reaction before engaging in such an operation.
Those who believe that Ukraine could repeat Azerbaijan’s success on its own land have ignored another important factor: Turkey’s dispatching its troops to Ukraine is highly unlikely.
US President-elect Joe Biden’s victory might have provided further fuel to those who support a military solution in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. During his vice presidency, Biden paid six visits to Ukraine, showing his support for Kyiv against Moscow, in stark contrast to outgoing President Donald Trump’s nonchalance to the Ukrainian problems. “The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump said in 2016. “And as far as Ukraine is concerned, it's a mess. And that's under the Obama's [sic] administration.”
Ukraine will expect more concrete support from the Biden administration vis-a-vis Crimea and Donbass. Erdogan also hopes to be on the same page with the incoming administration, at least on Ukraine, as the new administration is expected to take a tougher stance against Ankara on more contentious topics, including Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, the eastern Mediterranean conflict and relations with the Syrian Kurds.