Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Istanbul over the weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of his country’s strategic partnership with Turkey and shore up support from his Black Sea neighbour as tensions escalate with Russia over Ukraine’s simmering war in Donbas.
“Turkey’s support for the restoration of our sovereignty and territorial integrity is extremely important,” Zelenskyy stated in a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Following a meeting with the Turkish leader, Zelenskyy tweeted, “We share common values with #Turkey, including human life and support.”
While Turkey spars with the United States and other Western European leaders over the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and the conflict in Syria, the aspiring NATO country of Ukraine has developed strong 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 they are currently working on the implementation of a free-trade agreement, which leaders say will more than double the level of bilateral trade between them.
“The drifting away from the West discourse is very popular in European and US 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 seen as close to the Erdogan government, told Al Jazeera.
Ozturk said Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a game-changer for Ankara’s relations with Moscow and how it viewed the balance of power in the Black Sea.
Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 has become one of the most intractable elements of Turkey’s relationship with the West, but placed outside its borders and in the hands of Russia, the missile system is also a serious challenge to Turkey’s security.
When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, it immediately began deploying the S-400 there. It also built up its naval forces, stationing submarines and ships with Kalibr cruise missiles capable of hitting targets 2,400km (1,500 miles) away.
Istanbul is roughly 600km (375 miles) from Crimea.
That math led to a 2016 speech by Erdogan in which he stated the Black Sea was becoming a “Russian lake” and warned, “If we do not take action history will not forgive us.”
Erdogan has advocated for a stronger NATO presence in the region as Russia increases the size of its naval fleet.
More recently, Turkey has looked at the Black Sea as a step towards greater energy independence.
In October 2020, it announced the discovery of 405 billion cubic metres of gas off its coast, the largest finding in the country’s history.
“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquillity and cooperation,” the Turkish president stated, speaking next to his Ukrainian counterpart at Saturday’s news conference.
Ankara views Ukraine as a crucial buffer against Russia and has been a strong advocate for its acceptance into the NATO alliance
The two countries are cooperating on a range of defence projects and agreements.
Last year, Ukraine agreed to buy four of Turkey’s MILGEM Ada-class corvettes, small warships known for their manoeuvrability. The countries are jointly producing the vessels.
Faced with growing animosity in Western capitals, Ankara views Ukraine as a partner in the development of military technology in everything from satellites and radar to missiles.
Experts say one of the more advanced areas of cooperation is engine production and design. Turkey is working with Ukrainian companies to develop diesel engines for its fifth-generation fighter jet and main battle tank.
But it is Ukraine’s purchase 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 combat aerial vehicles) and promoted them for success on battlefields in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In the latter conflict, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone is widely credited with helping to tip the balance of power towards Azerbaijan in that country’s war with Armenia.
In 2018, Ukraine bought six Bayraktar TB2 drones and 200 high-precision missiles from Turkey as part of a $69m defence agreement.
Ukrainian military experts closely studied the use of the drone in Nagorno-Karabakh. They say the similarities between Azerbaijan’s fight against Armenia in that conflict, and Ukraine’s struggle to wrest back control of its breakaway region from another set of Russian supplied forces bodes well for Kyiv.
“We know that Russian capacity is not enough in the face of Turkish UAV’s,” said Ozturk. “They would give the upper hand to Ukrainian forces. Russian backed separatists have their edge, but they are not capable of stemming the new UAVs.”
After engaging in seven years of conflict with Russian-backed separatists, many in Kyiv appear anxious to test the new Turkish technology on the battlefield and see if it can lead to winning back any territory.
Russia says Ukraine is trying to provoke a conflict, while Kyiv has accused the Russian-backed separatists of increasing their attacks against government forces and Moscow of massing troops on its border.
President Erdogan called for an end to the rising tensions in eastern Ukraine but also said Turkey was ready to provide the necessary support to Kyiv.
Ozturk said Turkish support would likely entail advisers and technicians being sent to Ukraine as they were in Azerbaijan. “A combination of the widespread use of UCAVs and experienced input.”
If heavier fighting breaks out in the east, Ankara may be given the chance to turn the tables on Russia as Moscow has done in Syria.
“Turkey has been suffering because of Russia’s continued pressure in northern Syria, where they have the superiority of escalation. If it’s not happy, it can make Turkey pay a cost,” Ozturk said.
Turkish drones deployed in eastern Ukraine allow Ankara to bring its military capabilities to a festering war at Russia’s border.
The chance of replicating the successful combination of Turkish drones and military expertise that led to victory in Nagorno-Karabakh is surely tempting to risk-takers in Kyiv and Ankara.