In the past few years, Turkey has been gradually increasing its influence in Ukraine amid escalating tensions with Russia, challenging Moscow’s standing in the Black Sea region. The strategic cooperation between Ankara and Kyiv is not limited to political statements but encompasses other important fields, such as the economy, security, and, in particular, defence industries.
Relations between the two countries gained further impetus with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and reached their peak during the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who assumed office in 2019. The conflict in eastern Ukraine and the growing military activity of Russia in Donbas have made the Ankara-Kyiv axis a top priority for both states. In recent years, high-ranking figures have made several official visits.
The most recent saw president Zelensky meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on 15 April to discuss the huge deployment of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, estimated at over 100,000 by the European Union (EU). Although President Erdogan said that he hopes for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Turkey has actively continued its assistance to boost Ukraine’s military in accordance with a cooperation agreement signed on 3 February in Kyiv following Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine. This military cooperation with Ukraine flourishes at the cost of uneasy relations with Russia, which contains a number of contradictions on several issues across different geopolitical areas.
Amid the growing political crisis, Russia warned Ukraine that “the frequent ceasefire violations in the southeast requires taking immediate measures,” thus justifying Moscow’s military build-up. While such rhetoric reflects the hardening position of Russia, it is likely a signal to Western-backed Kyiv not to move against Russian proxy forces in the region. In this regard, NATO member Turkey’s open support comes at a critical time for Ukraine.
In addition to political dialogue, since 2018 Ukraine has become a key partner for Turkey in military technologies by manufacturing and exporting prop engines, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems.
In 2019, Ukrspecexport, a state-owned company, and Turkey’s privately-owned Baykar Makina company signed a cooperation deal that envisaged the development and production of sensitive technologies in defence and aerospace.
Moreover, in October 2020, another contract between Turkey and Ukraine’s engine developer company Icvhenko-Progress was signed to deliver AI-35 engines that are expected to be used in Turkey’s new cruise missile – Gezgin. Overall, Turkish and Ukrainian companies are currently working on more than 30 projects. However, the most significant issue about this deepening military partnership with Ukraine is Turkey’s eagerness to resolve its long-running shortcomings in engine production for its well-known domestically-produced Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.
Therefore, Turkey established a joint venture company with Ukraine named the Black Sea Shield to domestically produce as many as 48 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and to develop engine technologies and guided munitions.
Cooperation between the two countries intensified during the 44-day long war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region as Azerbaijan’s army used Bayraktar-TB2 drones (armed with MAM-L Smart Munitions) with high rates of success against Armenia (armed largely with Russian-made weaponry). As a result, Ukraine has agreed with Turkey not only to produce but also export Bayraktar drones to other countries, barring those to which Turkey already exports to itself.
Moreover, during his visit to Kyiv in February president Erdogan signed-off on $36 million in military aid to the Ukrainian army in its fight against separatist forces in the east, in another boost to bilateral defence cooperation. From Turkey’s point of view, cooperation with Ukraine promises a way out of sanctions imposed by Western partners, which threaten to undermine the developing Turkish defence industry.
Close cooperation with Ukraine means more technical knowledge, a free hand in arms exports, and a buffer against Russia in the Black Sea. For Ukraine, the new strategic alliance means a reliable and powerful ally that reaffirmed its support for Kyiv’s membership in NATO. Surprisingly, the US and Turkey are in perfect lockstep over Ukraine despite the rocky relations over other numerous issues such as the purchase of the S-400 missile system.
Undoubtedly, Turkey’s active involvement in Ukraine’s defense industry has raised eyebrows in Russia. As a result, Moscow issued a statement urging several countries, including Turkey, to stop supplying arms to Ukraine and “encouraging militaristic aspirations.” In addition, on 15 April, Russia “unexpectedly” suspended all flights to Turkey and Tanzania due to Covid-19 related events in those countries, which shocked the tourism industry. The decision came two days after the Zelensky-Erdogan meeting in Istanbul.
It’s clear that the context of the meeting of the two leaders and Erdogan’s position on the annexation of Crimea, which he labelled “illegal and illegitimate”, added more fuel to the confrontation with Russia. However, it is unlikely that Turkey will go further and support Ukraine militarily in the case of a full-blown war with Russia, though it will maintain its political and technical assistance to Kyiv in order to have a counterbalance against Russia in the Black Sea region.