Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of his country’s strategic partnership with Turkey and boost support for his Black Sea neighbor as tensions escalate with Russia following Donbass.
“Turkey’s support for restoring our sovereignty and territorial integrity is extremely important,” Zelensky said at a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Following a meeting with the Turkish leader, Zelensky tweeted: “We share common values with #Turkey, including human life and support.”
As Turkey argues with the United States and other Western European leaders over the purchase of S-400 missile system and the conflict in Syria, the NATO aspiring country Ukraine has developed close ties with Ankara.
Saturday’s visit marks the Ukrainian leader’s second trip to Turkey in less than six months.
In 2017, the countries created a passport-free travel zone and are now working to implement a free trade agreement, which the leaders say will more than double the level of bilateral trade between them.
“The distance from Western discourse is very popular in European and American capitals. The West doesn’t want to see that there are really problematic areas in Turkish-Russian relations, ”Bilgehan Ozturk, an analyst with the SETA Foundation, an Ankara-based think tank considered close, told Al Jazeera. of the Erdogan government.
Ozturk said that Russia annexation of Crimea changed the game for Ankara’s relations with Moscow and its vision of the balance of power in the Black Sea.
Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 has become one of the most intractable parts of Turkey’s relationship with the West, but placed outside its borders and in Russian hands, the missile system is also a serious challenge for the security of Turkey.
When Russia captured Crimea in 2014, it immediately began deploying the S-400 there. It also beefed up its naval forces, stationing submarines and ships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles capable of hitting targets 2,400 km (1,500 miles) away.
Istanbul is about 600 km (375 miles) from the Crimea.
This calculation led to a speech by Erdogan in 2016 in which he said that the Black Sea was becoming a “Russian lake»And warned« if we do not act, history will not forgive us ».
Erdogan pleaded for a stronger NATO presence in the region as Russia increases the size of its naval fleet.
More recently, Turkey has seen the Black Sea as a step towards greater energy independence.
In October 2020, he announced the discovery of 405 billion cubic meters of gas off its coast, the greatest discovery in the country’s history.
“Our main objective is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquility and cooperation,” said the Turkish president, speaking alongside his Ukrainian counterpart at the press conference on Saturday.
Ankara sees Ukraine as a crucial buffer against Russia and has been a strong supporter of its acceptance into the NATO alliance
The two countries are cooperating on a series of defense projects and agreements.
Last year Ukraine agreed to purchase 4 Turkish MILGEM Ada class corvettes, small warships known for their maneuverability. The countries jointly produce the ships.
Faced with growing animosity in Western capitals, Ankara sees Ukraine as a partner in the development of military technology in everything from satellites and radar to missiles.
Experts say that one of the most advanced areas of cooperation is the production and design of engines. Turkey is working with Ukrainian companies to develop diesel engines for its fifth-generation fighter jet and main battle tank.
But it is the purchase by Ukraine of Turkey’s combat drones, which military experts and analysts are watching closely, especially as tensions in eastern Ukraine heat up.
Turkey has positioned itself as a niche exporter of UCAVs (Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles) and promoted them to be successful on the battlefields in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. In this latest conflict, the Turkish drone Bayraktar is widely credited with helping to tip the balance of power towards Azerbaijan in that country’s war with Armenia.
In 2018, Ukraine purchased six Bayraktar TB-2 drones and 200 high-precision missiles from Turkey as part of a $ 69 million defense deal.
Ukrainian military experts have closely studied the use of the drone in Nagorno-Karabakh. They say the similarities between Azerbaijan’s fight against Armenia in this conflict and Ukraine’s own struggle to regain control of its breakaway region from another Russian-supplied set of forces bode well for Kiev.
“We know that the Russian capacity is not sufficient against Turkish drones,” said Ozturk. “They would give the upper hand to the Ukrainian forces. The Russian-backed separatists have their advantage, but they are not able to stem the new drones. “
After seven years of conflict with Russian-backed separatists, many people in Kiev seem eager to test Turkey’s new technology on the battlefield and see if it can lead to the reclaiming of territory.
Russia claims Ukraine is trying to provoke conflict, while Kiev has accused Russia-backed separatists of stepping up attacks on government forces and Moscow of massing troops on its border.
President Erdogan called for an end to growing tensions in eastern Ukraine, but also said Turkey was ready to provide the necessary support to Kiev.
Ozturk said Turkey’s support would likely involve sending advisers and technicians to Ukraine as they have been to Azerbaijan. “A combination of the widespread use of UCAVs and experienced contributions.”
If more intense fighting breaks out in the east, Ankara could have the possibility of turning the situation on Russia, as Moscow did in Syria.
“Turkey has suffered because of the continued pressure from Russia in northern Syria, where it has the superiority of escalation. If he is not happy, it may make Turkey pay a cost, ”said Ozturk.
Turkish drones deployed in eastern Ukraine allow Ankara to bring its military capabilities to a festering war on the Russian border.
The chance to replicate the successful combination of Turkish drones and military expertise that led to victory in Nagorno-Karabakh is certainly tempting for risk-takers in Kiev and Ankara.