The drone tensions come as Russian President Vladimir Putin again builds up troops near Ukraine’s border.
Turkey has sold Ukraine significantly more of the armed drones that drew a rebuke from Russia than previously disclosed, with further deals in the pipeline.
The Bayraktar TB2 drones, fired for the first time in October to destroy mobile artillery in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region, are prized items in a budding relationship that’s made Turkey one of Kyiv’s most important backers.
Baykar, an arms manufacturer based in Istanbul, has sold dozens of drones to Ukraine since 2019, together with control stations and missiles, according to several officials and an executive at a Turkish defense company with close government ties. Orders for at least two dozen more drones are under way, the people said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Spokespeople for both Baykar and the Turkish government declined to comment on the number of drones sold to Ukraine to date.
The defense deals come as East-West tensions spiral. The U.S. has warned European allies that Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing troops near Ukraine’s border in preparation for a possible invasion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of “serious consequences” if an assault takes place. The Kremlin denies it has any such plans, but says it sees a rising risk that Ukraine will attack Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east. The government in Kyiv dismisses Moscow’s claim.
The drone sales to Ukraine have stirred fury in Moscow and strained Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s relationship with Putin. That’s even as they have sought to manage their interests in conflicts in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus.
Putin condemned Ukraine’s “provocative” deployment of the attack drones in a phone call with Erdogan on Friday, according to a Kremlin statement. In a Nov. 19 phone call, Lavrov warned Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to take Moscow’s concern over Turkey’s “militarization” of Ukraine “as seriously as possible.”
Ukraine views the unmanned aircraft and the Turkish partnership as vital. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has met Erdogan at least five times since taking office in 2019, more than any other foreign leader. They’ve set up a formal structure for ties involving their foreign and defense ministers, and Turkey joined Ukraine’s newly launched Crimea Platform aimed at the eventual reversal of the peninsula’s annexation by Russia.
Ukraine’s government has also set aside land for facilities to manufacture Turkish drones locally.
More deals are in the pipeline, including for Turkey to co-produce space-launch rockets similar to Ukraine’s Zenit-2, according to a senior Turkish official. The launchers could also help Turkey develop ballistic missiles, although the official said Ankara has no such intent.
As well as creating a customer and supplier of engine technology for Turkey’s fast-growing arms producers, working with Kyiv provides leverage for Ankara with Moscow, according to another senior Turkish official.
The drones are no wonder weapon to worry Russia’s military and are unlikely to cause Putin to break-off a strategically beneficial relationship with Ankara, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, defied opposition from the U.S.-led alliance to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems. It also controls the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits that give Russia’s Black Sea fleet entry to the Mediterranean, as well as U.S. naval access to the Black Sea.
Still, the drones form part of a bigger picture on Ukraine that concerns Moscow, said Trenin. Ukraine has received Javelin anti-tank missiles, ammunition and counter-fire radar systems from the U.S. since 2014. The U.K has an in-principle agreement to finance and co-build eight fast attack boats armed with anti-ship missiles for Ukraine by 2024. Canada has trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian officers.
“The problem for Moscow is what to do in response” to any resulting Ukrainian action, Trenin said. “If it fails to act as Putin has warned, its bluff will be called. If it follows through, the costs and consequences will be enormous.”
Amid the tensions, negotiations are under way for Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden to speak by phone, potentially within days. The Russian leader is demanding “legally binding” security guarantees that would keep NATO weapons out of Ukraine, and particularly missiles that could threaten a strike on Moscow within minutes.
Even Ukraine’s improved and rearmed forces remain wildly over-matched by Russia. Bayraktar TB2 drones are large, slow and radio controlled, making them easier for modern anti-aircraft systems and jets to shoot down, according to Denis Fedutinov, a Moscow-based specialist in unmanned aircraft.
Turkey’s relationship with Ukraine is part of a wider effort by Erdogan to maintain ties with both Russia and NATO, according to Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“Strategically, Turkey doesn’t want Russia to dominate the Black Sea, but they also don’t want to step on its toes,” said Ozel, noting that the Russian and Ottoman empires fought more than a dozen wars in territories around the Black Sea. “So they’re balancing.”