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A nation must think before it acts.
On October 26, 2021, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense released video of a TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) striking a separatist D-30 howitzer in Russian-occupied Donbas. The strike was Ukraine’s first confirmed use of the now ubiquitous TB2, the Bayraktar-manufactured drone that the Turkish military has used to great tactical effect in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turkish-Ukrainian defense relationship is understudied, but it could become an important factor in how Russian elites view North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) support for non-member Ukraine, and be used to justify an invasion to assuage Moscow’s concerns about a US-allied military presence along its borders. The Turkish support for Ukraine is not the main driver of Russian discomfort about the future of Ukraine. The TB2 is also not a decisive game changer, and the use of UCAVs is almost certain to have little impact on how Russian leadership weighs risk during debates about the efficacy of armed conflict in a neighboring state. Nevertheless, Turkish-Ukrainian defense ties are worthy of deeper study, precisely because Ankara’s relationships with Kyiv and Moscow have a secondary impact on American interests in Eastern Europe.
The Turkish-Russian relationship is marred by bureaucratic distrust, which is papered over by a very functional leader-to-leader dynamic that enables the two Black Sea neighbors to cooperate and manage numerous regional conflicts. The Turkish-Ukrainian dynamic, in turn, is part of a broader Turkish effort to establish itself as an independent actor, committed to pursuing a foreign policy that often clashes with much of the NATO alliance. This paper will explore Turkish-Russian and Turkish-Ukrainian relations; the reasons for Turkey’s efforts to “fence sit” and establish itself as a neutral political actor in the Black Sea; and what these efforts portend for US interests in the region.
Ankara’s relationship with Moscow is multi-faceted and often misunderstood. Turkey was a bulwark against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but Turkish national elites have always been aware of the country’s close proximity to its larger neighbor, and have sought to manage ties with the leadership in Moscow. In the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkish elites have debated Ankara’s role in the world, the country’s alliance with the United States, and how best to maximize Turkish interests in the former Soviet space. In general, there is a consensus in Turkey that Ankara has considerable economic and political interests in deepening its relationships with all of its neighbors, including Russia. Turkey’s current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) adopted this basic philosophy, but fused elements of it with Islamist tropes about colonialism and identity in the Middle East. As the AKP has radicalized, it has sought common cause with elements of the far right in Turkish politics, the MHP, and the group’s argument that Ankara’s alliance with the West is detrimental to the country’s future and that Turkey should explore deepening ties with Russia and the ethnic Turkic states along its periphery.
Turkish domestic politics changed considerably after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The attempted putsch further isolated current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and justified his complete overhaul of government. The result has been the erosion of Turkey’s liberal institutions and the emergence of an authoritarian state, dependent on the fiat of the country’s president. At the same time, Ankara’s relationship with the United States and the European Union has cratered, following severe disagreements about strategy and tactics to defeat Islamic State in Syria and over Ankara’s own democratic failings back home. The Turkish-Russian relationship has flourished during the same period; especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call Erdoğan after putschists tried to kill him. The leader-to-leader relationship has since flourished, giving way to joint efforts to manage conflict in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Turkish decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air and missile defense system.
The origins of Turkey’s relationship with Ukraine stem, in part, from the S-400 purchase, and the subsequent actions Western states have taken to mitigate the threat this system poses to the F-35. Turkey was a Tier 3 member of the Joint Strike Fighter consortium and was slated to coproduce 100 F-35As and had explored purchasing a smaller number of F-35Bs for use by the Navy. During Ankara’s discussions with Moscow for the S-400, the United States warned Turkish officials that finalizing a purchase agreement — and then taking delivery — of the S-400 would result in Turkish expulsion from the program. Ankara ignored these warnings.
In parallel, the October 2019 Turkish invasion of Syria resulted in a series of human rights abuses. The Turkish-supported opposition committed these atrocities, leading Western countries to impose a series of arms embargoes on Turkey because of the use of Western-origin equipment in the invasion. The embargo extended to the US Congress, which has halted support for Turkish Foreign Military Sales (FMS) approvals. The Congressional embargo has stressed the Turkish fighter fleet, which in combination with the removal of the country from the F-35 program, has prompted two interrelated and seemingly contradictory Turkish actions. Turkish elites have signaled that they could cooperate with Russia on 5th generation fighter technologies and, perhaps, buy three squadrons of a Flanker variant for shorter-term operational needs. The second, and perhaps contradictory act, has been to look for non-Western suppliers for defense equipment that Ankara needs to sustain its own indigenous defense programs. Ukraine has emerged as a critical supplier, including for certain unmanned systems and for turbofan engines for jet powered drones and aircraft.
These two actions are in contradiction with one another, but also demonstrate how Turkish leaders are comfortable compartmentalizing the country’s international relationship to pursue policies that elites have decided are in its best interests. The Turkish-Ukrainian relationship is almost certain to continue. The two sides have a mutually beneficial defense industry relationship. Ankara will have to balance any such cooperation with Kyiv with its very real interests in managing ties with Moscow. Russia and Turkey can, in theory, manage their disagreements about Ukraine, precisely because each side has an interest in retaining functioning relations. Turkey’s NATO membership, however, creates secondary issues for the United States. Moscow can point to NATO support for Ukraine — to include Turkish support for Kyiv — as a reason for future military action. Turkey would not face direct repercussions for its relationship but would instead benefit from the actions Washington would take to bolster alliance security.