Europe has seen a chorus of condemnation for Turkey’s behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria. The sole discordant note comes from the Ukraine whose Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, has praised Ankara for the actions it has taken as a “friend and partner.” When Turkey sided with Azerbaijan in the war with Armenia last year, the Ukraine supported Ankara’s intervention and denounced Armenia’s “aggression.” In 2014, Kiev recalled its ambassador to Yerevan after the latter recognised the referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
A strategic partnership has emerged between Turkey and Ukraine since then, and it has strengthened since Volodymyr Zelensky became president of the former soviet state in 2019. The volume of bilateral trade has risen from $4.8 to $10 billion during the past two years. A large chunk of this is in defence trade. During Zelensky’s visit to Istanbul three weeks ago (his third since taking office), the two sides agreed to broaden and deepen their partnership in all areas, “especially in military cooperation.” This was sealed with more arms purchases from Turkey, including warships and several Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. On the news site American Purpose, in April, the famous historian Francis Fukuyama described how Turkey had used these drones “to devastating effect in several recent military conflicts.” He said it was “a point of nationalist pride in Turkey” that the destruction caused by its drones intervening for Azerbaijan against Armenia forced the latter to withdraw from the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Ukrainian army is hoping to acquire 48 more of these planes, which can be tailored to serve a broad range of military tasks. Indeed Russian military experts fear this could change the military balance of power in Kiev’s favour in the dispute over Donbas. In addition to purchasing three control stations for the drones, Ukraine has already tested them in varying weather conditions over the tense Donbas region, much to Moscow’s disconcertion. Russia believes that the main purpose of Zelensky’s recent visit to Turkey was to finalise contracts for more Bayraktars to use in looming attacks against separatists in Donbas. Just before setting off to Istanbul, Zelensky paid a morale-boosting visit to the Ukrainian troops amassed at the front.
“For the sake of a strong future” was Ankara’s motto for its pledge to fill Kiev’s military shopping lists, including a large fleet of remodelled drones fitted out with components produced in Canada. According to experts, Turkey’s development of this line of drones, called the Akinci, is a manifestation of its increasingly close defence relations with Ukraine. Moreover, the Baykar defence firm that specialises in UAVs has entered a joint venture with Ukrspecexport, a state-owned Ukrainian defence firm, to produce new engines for the drones and other technology. They have given this venture the name Black Sea Shield. Turkey and Ukraine are now discussing developing a fighter drone in the framework of such ventures, which Shmyhal described as a “basic component of the strategic cooperation” between the two countries.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has stressed the need for a peaceful solution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, and President Recep Tayip Erdogan has insisted that the Turkish-Ukrainian relationship was not directed against any third country. But few have failed to see Ankara’s actions as attempts to deliver blows beneath the belt to Russia in retaliation for its restriction of flights to Turkey. Russia has said that the measure was taken because Covid-19 infection rates in Turkey had risen to an all-time high. But sources in Turkey, whose tourist industry is heavily dependent on Russian tourists, believe that “Putin wants to punish us” for supporting Kiev. Undoubtedly, Ankara was also keen to hint that it could use Ukraine and the Black Sea (which Putin, himself, said had become “Erdogan’s lake”) to affect other areas of Russian interest, such as Libya, Syria and the Caucasus.
Some observers believe that Erdogan sees the Ukraine as his bridge to reviving his regime’s moribund relations with the US and Europe. If so, despite his recent charm offensives, he has yet to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Turkey’s exclusion from the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter programme was emblematic of the bumpy course of Turkish-US relations last year. This year, the weathervane is US President Biden’s fulfilment of his campaign pledge to recognise the Armenian Genocide, which he did on Saturday. The previous day, Biden had notified Erdogan of his intent to recognise the massacres of Armenias during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. It was his first phone call with the Turkish president since coming to office. In the short term, at least, relations between Ankara and Washington are going to be stormy.
That Friday, members of EU Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee also voted 49 in favour, four against (with 14 abstentions) on their report on Turkey’s EU candidacy for membership in the EU. If the report is adopted in the parliament’s plenary next month, it will officially freeze the already suspended accession talks. Europeans hold that the autocratic path Erdogan has chosen has led his country away from the EU. “There is no doubt, EU-Turkey relations are at an historical low point,” said Vlad Nistor, MEP from Romania. “It is clear that the accession negotiations are in serious danger as long as Turkey refuses to carry out reforms, undermines the principles of the rule of law and fundamental rights and violates the territorial integrity of Greece and Cyprus, two EU member states. There is no place in the EU for aggressors.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly