In the face of Russian invasion worries, Turkish drones are boosting Ukrainian morale

As a possible Russian invasion approaches, Turkey's drones are a major morale booster for Ukraine.

A pair of air force colonels in this ancient town in southwest Ukraine are praising Turkey's widely desired combat drones, the Bayraktar TBT 2, as Western politicians hurry to avert a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"To demolish a column of tanks, the Bayraktar drone gives accurate aiming to the artillery." During an exclusive 70-minute interview with Al-Monitor, Lt. Col. Yuri Ignati, spokesman for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, exclaimed, "It's a quality drone that accomplishes everything in real time in an automated system."

"The drone will point to the location, and the choice to suppress and eliminate the oncoming soldiers will be taken in less than three seconds." Drones are weapons. The drone is an assassin. It provides Ukraine with a new, qualitative advantage over the adversary," he said.

"Drones make it difficult for the Russians," said his colleague colonel, who is in charge of the Ukrainian military's drone program. The colonel, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, said he spent three months in western Turkey in 2019 training with other Ukrainian air force officers at a facility owned by Baykar Makina, a private Turkish defense firm run by Selcuk Bayraktar, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's favorite son-in-law. The colonel said, "I liked it there."

"Ukraine has around 20 Bayraktar drones in all," Ignati said, "but we will not stop there."

When asked to clarify what he means by "roughly," Ignati is evasive. His colleague, on the other hand, said that Ukraine spent $60 million for a first batch of six drones purchased in 2018 and received a "30 percent reduction" on six additional drones purchased since then.

"We want as many Turkish drones as we can obtain," said the drone program's commander, a colonel.

Their effusion may seem strange to the untrained eye.

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)

Ukraine's most important ally is the United States. Since Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and fostered a brutal separatist war in the country's eastern Donbass area, the Pentagon has supplied the former Soviet state with hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and technical training. Despite his denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now reported to be considering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, raising concerns of a wider conflagration unprecedented since World War II.

The prevailing opinion is that Ukraine will collapse if this occurs.

Turkey, not America, is often identified as the nation that raises Ukraine's sagging spirits and whose acts "prove that it isn't frightened of Russia," according to the drone program leader, while US officials and members of Congress come to Kyiv and wag admonishing fingers at Moscow.

In the midst of this outpouring of goodwill, Turkey's autocratic president is slated to visit Kiev on February 3 and meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky. The visit is intended to highlight the Black Sea neighbors' growing diplomatic, commercial, and security relations, which they refer to as a "strategic alliance." The objectives are lofty. The leaders are expected to sign a long-awaited free trade agreement as well as a slew of other commercial and military agreements, bolstering an impressive list of current agreements.

Turkey's unwavering diplomatic support for Ukraine in the Crimean crisis is seen as crucial. Until Stalin ordered them out and millions of them relocated in Turkey, Turkic Muslim Tatars were the majority. Russia's takeover of Crimea, according to Ankara, is an unlawful occupation. Turkey is also a strong supporter of Ukraine's bid to join NATO, which Putin is ready to risk a war to prevent.

Turkey's silent support for the Ukraine Orthodox Church's decision to legally break from its Russian equivalent after 300 years is seldom publicized, but it has symbolic importance. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, supported the move. Among the world's Orthodox churches, the Istanbul-based patriarchate is considered as "first among equals."

Moscow was enraged. "The Moscow Patriarchate was the sole globally recognized Orthodox patriarchate in both Russia and Ukraine prior to the rupture," a church source told Al-Monitor before the break. "Kirill I epitomized the notion of a Russian commonwealth, comprising Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus," he remarked of the current Patriarch.

In contemporary Turkey, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has no legal standing, allowing the government unrestricted power to intervene in its affairs. As a result, Ankara may have blocked Bartholomeos from formally handing over the charter of independence to Kyiv's young Metropolitan Ephiphanus I in Istanbul in January 2019. It didn't work out.

In response, the Russian Orthodox Church severed all connections with Constantinople. It was one of the most significant schisms in Christian history.

Turkey's participation in Orthodox Christian power struggles, on the other hand, receives little attention in Ukraine's raucous media. Even as the danger from Moscow grows, the issue of how far Turkey can go in its alliance with Ukraine without disrupting its delicate balance with its arch-rival Russia is dismissed.

Instead, local television shows are brimming with frantic punditry about how Turkish drones will assist shift the balance against Russia, just like they did against Armenia during the latter's conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh pocket in late 2020.

The hype is encouraged by Ukraine's government in the aim of boosting national spirit.

"We see our strategic collaboration with Turkey as a strong, mutually beneficial relationship." In a written response to Al-request Monitor's for comment, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry stated, "We give special importance to our relationship in the military sector sphere."

"Turkey's supply of [unmanned aerial vehicles] is seen not as a purely economic transaction, but as a show of solidarity and support in difficult times when certain nations continue to argue that bolstering Ukraine's defenses and resilience would provoke Russia," the ministry noted. It was almost certainly a reference to Germany's refusal to equip 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)

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Igor Semyvolos, the director of the think tank Association of Middle East Studies, said, "Turkey is more transparent, more honest." "With Turkish guns, we have a lot more freedom." [The Bayraktar drones] were sold to us with no strings attached. Erdogan is also a brave man. Semyvolos said, "He has no fear of Putin."

Ukraine and Turkey are ideal allies in many ways. Their common goal of restraining Russian expansionism has a long history. It dates from the 15th century, when the Crimean Khanate became an Ottoman vassal, until the 16th century, when Roxelana, a slave girl from Rohatyn in western Ukraine, became Suleiman the Magnificent's favorite. In a series of alliances with Ukraine's Cossacks against Polish kings and Russian tsars, the Sublime Porte ruled over significant swaths of southern Ukraine for decades.

Few Ukrainians were aware of this since their former Soviet masters wiped the Ottoman era from the country's history. "They changed it to read, 'The Russians arrived to these untamed territories and created Novorossiya,'" Petro Kraluk, an Ottoman expert from Ukraine, said. He told Al-Monitor, "The Turkish presence is not addressed in history texts [taught in Ukrainian schools] until this day."

That was until the release of "The Magnificent Century" in 2014. The fact that Roxelana had such power over the Ottomans' longest-reigning ruler was brought home to millions of Ukrainians by a popular Turkish TV show depicting the imperial court's intrigues.

"Succession was everything in Ottoman politics at the time, and she essentially selected who would be the future sultan by playing this game brutally and with expertise," said Christopher de Bellaigue, author of "The Lion House," a well-documented picture of Suleiman's reign.

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

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

Turkey has tended to see Ukraine as a subset of its ties with Russia in recent years.

Russia's 2014 land grab in Crimea served as a wake-up call for Turkey, causing it to relinquish control of the Black Sea and turn its attention to Kyiv. According to Yevgenia Gaber, a famous Ukrainian researcher of Turkish politics and a senior fellow at Carleton University's Center of Modern Turkish Studies, "beautiful girls" meant "beach vacations" for many Turks and "beach holidays" meant "beautiful girls" for many Ukrainians.

"Relations were immersed in mutual ignorance for a long period," Gaber, who served at the Ukrainian Embassy in Ankara from 2014 to 2018, stated. For example, we had to explain that Ukrainian and Russian are two different languages."

"Things have changed dramatically," she told Al-Monitor. Visa-free travel between the two nations is steadily eroding perceptions that both countries hold.

Following his landslide victory in April 2019, Zelensky, who previously mocked Erdogan as a "cockroach with a mustache" in the television serial "Servant of the People," which launched him to national renown, travelled to a Turkish beach. He has visited Turkey four times since then to meet with Erdogan.

According to Semyvolos, Ukraine's first Jewish president now regards Erdogan like a father. "Zelensky visits Erdogan as if he were visiting an energy source. He returns re-energized."

All eyes are on a parcel of land in Vasylkiv, which is 53 kilometers (33 miles) southwest of the capital, at the Air Force Command in Vinnytsia. It will be used to build a facility that will co-produce Turkish drones. Is Erdogan planning a trip to the site for a groundbreaking ceremony? "We definitely hope so," said Ignati, a spokeswoman for the Air Force.

He could be let down.

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 who is also known for his pragmatism. Following Russia's annexation of Crimea, he declined to join US and EU sanctions on the country. He did not attend the much-anticipated Crimea Platform's inaugural conference in Kyiv in September, instead sending his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

According to Gaber, his offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine might be as much about signaling Turkish neutrality in the case of a confrontation as it is about restoring Turkey's status as a "problem solver" in the eyes of the West.

Turkey can test the boundaries of Russian acceptability of its military ventures into regions like Libya and Syria, as well as its "near abroad," thanks to NATO's protective barrier.

However, Ukraine is Putin's red line, and Erdogan understands that he can only go so far. Despite all the excitement over Turkey regaining its pro-Western credentials as a result of Ukraine, Washington does not want Turkey to supply Russia with any justification to invade Ukraine.

In a recent essay, Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted that 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."

Ukraine is much more cautious. Ukraine didn't utilize a Bayraktar drone in battle for the first time until October 26 of last year. It was in response to the death of one of its troops by artillery rounds fired from the hamlet of Hranitne in separatist Donetsk by Russian-backed forces. The Ukrainian military released footage of the drone attack.

"The hit, which used the lowest charge, was not meant against troops but at the D30 Howitzer, which was firing Ukrainian positions in violation of the Minsk Agreement." "The purpose was to put an end to the bombardment," Ignati said. He was referring to a series of agreements made in 2014 and 2015 by Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk, the Donbass' two pro-separatist regions.

"Yes, there is an instruction [from the General Command] not to provoke," Ignati said, adding that the Turkish drones "stay precisely inside the bounds" set by Minsk. "Yet artillery bombardment occurs every day, and snipers are on the job. Ukraine is unable to remain quiet and reacts," the official said.

Russia feels the same way. In a phone discussion with Erdogan, Putin branded the measure a provocation. In a following phone contact, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, cautioned Cavusoglu to take Moscow's worries over Ukraine's "militarization" "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 willingness to slit Turkey's nose when he believes it is in Russia's best interests is undeniable. Putin canceled charter flights taking millions of Russian visitors to Turkey and blocked Turkish tomato imports after Turkish soldiers shot down a Russian plane over Syria in November 2015. Russian planes attacked Turkish outposts in northern Syria's rebel-held region of Idlib in February 2020, killing 37 Turkish soldiers. Russia stopped importing Turkish tangerines soon after the Ukrainians shot their Bayraktar drone, alleging "excessive presence of chemicals."

In the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Turkey's drones and military advisors were instrumental in assisting Azerbaijan in reclaiming territory that had been held by Armenia for nearly three decades. Ukraine, on the other hand, is unique. As put forth in an article published on the Kremlin's website on July 12 last year, it's essentially Russian, according to Putin. Would Russia have waited on its hands if Turkey had acted in support of Zelensky, a democratically elected pro-Western reformer, rather than Ilham Aliyev, a corrupt despot with deep links to the Kremlin? Most likely not.

"If we speak about a full-fledged invasion, Turkish drones won't be a game changer; they won't have the same effect as in Karabakh," military expert Sergiy Zgurets said. "It will be difficult for Ukraine to resist if the Russian army strikes from six distinct places, as implied by its military posture in the east, the Black Sea, and on the Belarussian border," Zgurets told Al-Monitor.

"No one will be able to help us." That is why [the administration] emphasized Turkey. "They created a façade," said Iliya Kusa, an international relations specialist at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv. "People see in Erdogan what they want to see in themselves: a guy who keeps his promises and has propelled Turkey to regional powerhouse status." "In the case of a conflict," Kusa said, "Turkey will remain neutral." Erdogan will undoubtedly make an effort.

War would have devastating and immediate consequences for Turkey, which is already experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades. Russian domination over the Black Sea would increase if Russia retained control of Ukraine. It would also put Turkey under strong pressure from the US and Europe to join its NATO partners in supporting a barrage of punitive measures against Russia, something Erdogan would be unwilling to do. In 2021, Russia was Turkey's tenth biggest export market, supplying roughly 40% of the country's natural gas requirements, including via the TurkStream pipeline, which was just opened.

"Turk Steam was a stab in the back for Ukraine," Kusa remarked. The Turkish segment of a pipeline that formerly carried Russian gas through Ukraine and on to Turkey and Bulgaria is now inactive, depriving Kyiv of geopolitical significance and transit payments.

Ankara's trade connections with Ukraine, on the other hand, are strengthening. Last year, Turkey overtook Russia as Ukraine's fifth biggest commercial partner, with a volume of $5 billion. Officials say they aim to quadruple that number, but local businesspeople are concerned about an invasion of Turkish products like cement and textiles, with some publicly opposing the planned free trade agreement, which has been in the works since 2011.

In the present context, their worries may be dismissed.

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)

The threat of further violence is real for Ismet Yazici, the Turkish CEO of Lifecell, Ukraine's third biggest mobile provider.

Lifecell is a completely owned subsidiary of Turkcell, Turkey's biggest cellular service, and employs 1,100 Ukrainians. Yazici told Al-Monitor in an interview at Lifecell's headquarters in Kyiv that the firm had spent over $3 billion since it began operations 13 years ago.

This statistic accounts for almost all Turkish investment in Ukraine, at 95%.

The battle in Donbass, on the other hand, was a major setback. Lifecell was forced to exit Ukraine, which had previously been its most profitable market. "In the east, we were quite powerful," Yazici recalls. "We were evicted from our home." Our base station was turned off by rebels supported by Russia, and we lost a million clients as a result. The consequences were very severe in Crimea."

"Our aim is to guarantee that our clients have access to [communication] towers if there is another physical assault by Russia," Yazici added. Russia would be able to easily target the towers, including via cyberattacks.

Meanwhile, several Western nations are concerned about Turkey's military connections with Ukraine. Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 weapons, which sparked US sanctions, has raised doubts about Ankara's commitment to NATO, but it was fortunate for Kyiv. Turkey has turned to Ukraine for drone engines due to a legislative restriction on foreign military sales to Turkey.

According to some NATO ambassadors, Turkey is acting as Moscow's stalking horse inside the alliance.

In Akkuyu, on the Mediterranean coast, Russia's state atomic energy business, ROSATOM, is constructing Turkey's first nuclear power plant. Ukraine has nuclear technology dating back to its time as a Soviet republic, when nuclear weapons were placed on its land.

"We are often asked about the scope of our future partnership with Turkey. "We warn the Europeans that if we don't collaborate with Turkey, Turkey will cooperate with Russia," Gaber said, adding that assisting Turkish nuclear experts and engineers "better grasp what they're receiving from Russia" is part of that. The answer to whether Ukraine receives de-escalation or war from Russia remains terrifyingly ambiguous. The conclusion will reveal the actual limitations of Kyiv's partnership with Ankara.

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