The Opportunity in Ukraine

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Altan Atamer

Originally developed to combat the PKK, Turkish drones are now operating in many international conflicts. Technologically advanced enough to destroy enemy air defense systems, and cheap enough to engage in risky and even potentially fatal missions Baykar Defense’s “TB2,” “ANKA,” and “Akıncı” drone variants, in particular, have developed a deadly and effective reputation. In Syria, for example, Turkish drones were particularly effective in halting Bashar al-Assad’s advance in the Idlib governorate and threats of repeat exposure to Turkish drones have largely dissuaded the “Syrian Arab Army” from advancing on Turkish positions in the North West of the country. The UN recognized government in Libya likewise owes its continued existence to Turkish drones which have turned the tide of battle against Haftar’s “Libyan National Army.” Most recently, Azerbaijan employed Turkish drones to great effectiveness in the Karabakh conflict, reversing the near 30-year Armenian occupation of internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory in a mere 44 days. 

The effectiveness of Turkish drones in these conflicts have drawn the attention of many countries. In fact, the Defence Secretary of the UK, Ben Wallace, has singled out Turkish drones as “leading the way” in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, and a model to emulate for the British Defense Ministry (Sabbagh 2020). Currently, Kazakhstan (Bisht 2020b) and Serbia (Buyuk 2020) are considering purchasing multiple units of Turkish drones, and countries like Azerbaijan, Qatar, Libya, and Ukraine have already procured their own fleets (Hofman 2020). Ukrainian investment in Turkish drones, in particular, have recently intensified. Ukrainian officials responsible for the import of military weapons have announced plans to purchase up to 48 Bayraktar TB2 drones (Daily Sabah 2020). Furthermore, plans to jointly produce new Turkish-Ukrainian drones which are variants of the original TB2 are currently underway (Bisht 2020a). However, joint Turkish-Ukrainian ventures and expanding Turkish influence is not just a testament to Turkish ingenuity nor are its implications confined to either Turkey or Ukraine. 

Ever since 2014 Ukraine has been fighting a war in its Eastern and Southern territories – in specific the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and the Crimean Peninsula. Unfortunately, these regions have fallen to Russian backed separatists which receive support, and often fight alongside, the military units of the Russian Armed Forces. Putin has even followed the effective annexation of these territories by granting its residents with Russian citizenship (Calamur 2019; Dickinson 2020). The mobilization of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory, the annexation of strategic Ukrainian cities and ports, and the weaponization of Russian citizenship has, naturally, alarmed the US, NATO, and Turkey (Altman 2020; Encke 2020; Radio Free Europe 2020). However, despite all the outrage that these transgressions generated, sympathy for Ukraine has not been able to reverse the situation on the ground. As of writing this, the Russian military is still occupying Donetsk, Luhansk, and the Crimean Peninsula. Since 2014, then, Ukraine has been looking for a way to break the deadlock against Russia and its proxies.

It is precisely here where Turkish drones could prove to be a decision maker for the Ukrainian military. What the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Karabakh have taught many observers is that Turkish drones are not just capable of deciding conflicts, but that they possess the capability to directly challenge Russia’s perceived military supremacy in weapons technology (Goble 2020). It is worth noting that in all of the aforementioned conflicts, Russia is actively backing forces opposed to Turkish interests. In other words, Russian military support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Haftar in Libya, and Armenia in Karabakh have all been conflicts that pitted Russian aerial defenses against Turkish drones. Given the current situations in Syria and Libya, and the final outcome in Karabakh, it is easy to see why Ukraine would now want to supplement their own armed forces with the drones currently produced by the Turkish defense industries. 

While it is no surprise that Ukraine has turned to Turkey in light of the performance of Turkish drones against Russian military hardware, and that Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation has intensified in response to Russian aggression, the increased demand of Turkish military technology has much broader geopolitical implications than Turkish-Ukrainian relations or Turkish-Russian military competition. Crucially, the US is also supportive of Ukrainian attempts to liberate its occupied territories (Welt 2020, 46). However, American military support for Ukraine has largely revolved around “non-lethal” economic aid (Welt 2020, 37-38), the training of Ukrainian soldiers (Welt 2020, 40), cybersecurity measures (Welt 2020, 40), and Russian sanctions (Welt 2020, 44-45). In fact, while the US Congress has routinely approved of military sales to Ukraine, these sales are either mostly in defensive weaponry or contingent on the deployment of the weapons systems to be away from the frontlines due to fears that it would “escalate” the conflict against Russia (Welt 2020, 38). While economic and defensive military aid is certainly nothing to be scoffed at, any support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity necessarily requires offensive armaments due to the Russia’s current occupation of Donetsk, Luhansk, and the Crimean Peninsula. In short, self-professed US interests run counter to the current measures adopted by either the US Congress or the previous Obama and Trump administrations. And while the current Biden administration has given brief remarks in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (Biden 2021), Biden has yet to depart drastically from the actions of the previous two presidents.

It is clear that previous US administrations and Congresses have adopted an attitude that is unable to strengthen Ukraine’s military to such a degree that it would overwhelm Russian forces and their proxies. While Turkish drones are by no means a guarantee for success against the Russian military or their proxies, they do have a proven track record against Russian made weapons. In addition, the development of Turkish drones and Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation in the field of military technology serves US interests and strengthens Turkish and US influence in the region. Programs like Turkish drone manufacturing should therefore be met with US support. US Support for Turkish programs would also be a signal to Turkey that the US is willing to engage more positively with Turkey’s military capacities. In turn, this could lead to reversing the deteriorating Turkish-US relationship. Turkish military technology, then, represents to Ukraine an opportunity to change the conditions on the ground, and an opportunity for rapprochement in Turkish-US relations.

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