Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been variously accused of “neo-Ottomanism,” revanchism or radical Islamism. But the meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of Turkey and Ukraine in the “2+2” format in Kiev on December 18 did not fit into any of these narratives.
The event throws light on the moorings of Turkish regional policies that seldom get discussed. The “2+2” format is generally regarded as a level of diplomatic and political interaction by two countries that have vital stakes in the relationship.
The Turkish-Ukrainian relationship has gained gravitas since 2014 following the pro-Western regime change in Kiev, and palpably so after Volodymyr Zelensky became president in May last year.
More recently, Azerbaijan’s dramatic success in recovering lost territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, thanks to Turkey’s robust support, captivated the Ukrainian elite. Zelensky’s visit to Turkey on October 16 turned out to be a turning point in bilateral relations. During Zelensky’s visit, a framework agreement on military cooperation was signed.
Zelensky was much impressed by Erdogan’s affirmation that Turkey considers Ukraine to be “the key to the establishment of stability, security, peace and prosperity in the region” and his reiteration that “Turkey has not recognized Crimea’s illegal annexation [by Russia] and it never will.”
Zelensky later announced the construction of two naval bases “for the protection of the Black Sea region” and emphasized his intention to develop an army that will not allow the loss of national territory.
Ukraine has emerged as Turkey’s main partner in a number of military technologies such as turboprop and diesel engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, space and satellite technologies and active and passive robotic systems. It’s a match made in heaven, as Ukraine also has a strong base for the defense industry dating back to the Soviet era.
Thus Turkey is funding the research and development work in Ukraine to develop advanced engine technologies; Turkish companies have acquired a quarter of the shares of Ukrainian engine manufacturer Motor Sich, along with terms related to the transfer of know-how; Turkey is open to co-production of its famed combat drones in Ukraine.
Ukraine has agreed to transfer know-how to Turkey to boost its fledgling space agency and a satellite R&D laboratory in Roketsan, Turkey’s leading manufacturer of rocket and missile engines and satellites, and will give assistance for the development of jet engines in Turkey’s TFX fighter project, and the two countries will jointly develop and produce military satellites.
The technology that Turkey is offering ranges from the Bayraktar TB2 surveillance and combat drones and Atmaca anti-ship missiles (with a range of 200 kilometers) to advanced corvettes. All in all, the two countries are now working on 50 joint defense projects.
Analysts speculate that Ukraine might repeat the Karabakh example to win back territories it lost to Russia-backed separatists in 2014 in Donbas and could use drones to undertake surveillance over Crimea and the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
During a visit to Turkey on December 2, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba Dmytro openly voiced the hope, while invoking the heritage of the Ottoman Empire until the 18th century, that Ankara would assume a “leadership role” on the Crimean question.
Indeed, the joint statement issued after last Friday’s “2+2” meeting “noted the existence of threats and their implications for the stability and security of the broader Black Sea region that needs to be strengthened on the basis of international law and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of states within their internationally recognized borders.”
It flagged Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s “integration with European and trans-Atlantic structures, including the EU and NATO,” as well as its “sovereignty and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.”
After the 2+2 meeting, Foreign Minister Kuleba estimated at a joint press conference that the format “will become an important driving force not only for Ukraine-Turkey relations, but also for the development of the situation in our region in general” and will be “useful for Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.”
Compared with such hype, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded that the impasse in the Donbas “should be solved within the territorial integrity and we are happy that the ceasefire continues, despite some small breaches.” Çavuşoğlu said Turkey does not recognize the “unlawful annexation of Crimea” and it is a known position voiced at the United Nations.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also told the press conference that Ankara is aware of the importance of peace and stability in the Black Sea region, adding: “We would like everyone to know that we are very cautious and sensitive about this. We are taking all measures not to let any provocations, tension [in the region].” Akar also flagged that Turkey is seeking a broad-based relationship with Ukraine.
Surely, the Turkish ministers cautioned against over-interpretation. The Crimean Tatars form an important lobby in Turkey’s domestic politics, and Ankara has also been pursuing a pan-Turkic agenda regionally.
However, the deepening technological cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine has far-reaching implications for the power dynamic in the Black Sea basin where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is now establishing a presence to rival Russia. The big question is about Turkey’s intentions.
Does it aim to counterbalance Russian supremacy in the Black Sea? Some analysts estimate that this is Ankara’s way of pressuring Moscow in its own back yard as retaliation for Russian efforts undermining Turkey’s agenda in Libya and Syria.
Some Russian experts have also expressed apprehension that the Ukrainian generals might copy the Azeri tactics in Karabakh to launch a military operation in Donbas. There has been a buildup on the Donbas front recently with Ukraine deploying tanks, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft systems and rocket-propelled grenades. The Turkish TB2 drones could easily hit pro-Russian separatist positions.
But Erdogan is a hardcore realist who knows that Moscow wouldn’t tolerate a Ukrainian military offensive in Donbas, and that neither NATO nor the US and the European Union wants a war. Erdogan has no reason to confront Russia, either. Moscow has gone the extra mile to accommodate Ankara’s interests in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
To be sure, Erdogan is conscious of the West’s machinations to create a rift between Turkey and Russia. The entente with Russia creates space for Turkey to negotiate more optimally with the EU and the US, while it is in Russia’s interest, too, to create such space for Turkey. Arguably, it is a variant of the new type of inter-state relationship that exists between Russia and China.
Turkey instantaneously reacted to the recent US sanctions by reaffirming that there is no going back on the S-400 missile deal with Russia. Defense Minister Akar’s reaction was that Turkey will turn to “other nations” (read Russia) to source its weaponry.
Surely, Erdogan’s independent foreign policies won’t be sustainable without a resilient “Russia option.” President Vladimir Putin appreciates that, as evident from Moscow’s willingness to have an equal relationship with Turkey based on mutual respect and mutual interest, be it in Nagorno-Karabakh or in Syria. (Libya falls in an altogether different category.)
On the contrary, Turkey’s strained relations with the EU stem from substantial and opposing interests that are virtually impossible to reconcile any time soon. Equally, Turkey’s tensions with the US go far beyond its acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.
US President Donald Trump kept tensions with Turkey under check, but Erdogan can expect a more adverse situation in the Joe Biden presidency. As vice-president, Biden witnessed the failed coup attempt of July 2016 against Erdogan in which the latter narrowly escaped assassination.
More important, the United States’ dalliance with Syrian Kurdish groups (affiliated with the terrorist group PKK) dates back to 2014 during Barack Obama’s presidency.
It is no coincidence that Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu has pointedly reverted to Ankara’s demand for the extradition of Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen as a necessary condition for the improvement of relations with Washington. Turkey suspects that Gulen is a CIA “asset” and the 2016 coup attempt aimed at a Gulenist takeover with US backing.
Turkey faces a phalanx of hostile regional states; the EU and the US are in adversarial mode; and NATO is of no help. Suffice to say, Turkey’s efforts to create “strategic depth” in the Black Sea must be put in perspective.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.