US and European leaders speak cautiously against Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and is increasing its military deployment in the region to invade all of Ukraine. The United States is supplying arms and ammunition to Kyiv, while Germany is blocking NATO ally Estonia from transferring German-origin weapons to Ukraine. The Berlin government avoids provoking Russia as they are bound by economic cooperation via the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which runs through Danish waters to Germany. On the other hand, NATO member Turkey, which enjoys a better relationship with Russia than the US and various European countries, is ironically fully backing Kyiv with Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones against Moscow. Turkey has repeatedly offered “mediation” to Moscow and Kyiv, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s main goal is using Ukraine to counterbalance Russia in that region and to get as much as benefit as possible from the crisis.
Turkey and Russia have developed a complex relationship to continue commercial ties despite their political and military disagreements. Ankara and Moscow have huge energy projects such as the TurkStream pipeline, a new export gas pipeline stretching from Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea, and the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey’s Mersin province. On the other hand, Erdoğan strongly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has warned Russia against invading Ukraine.
The Washington Post reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main concern lies not in US military aid to Ukraine but rather in the threat of Turkish drones in Ukraine.
Russia has been warning Turkey over the last few months of drone support to Ukraine. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in December that while Turkey and Russia enjoy a good relationship, Turkish drones in Eastern Ukraine could destabilize the situation in the region. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded to the Kremlin’s warning by saying that Ankara cannot be blamed for Ukraine’s deployment of the weapon.
According to a Newsweek report Putin, during a call with Erdoğan last month, “stressed that Kiev has continued its destructive efforts to sabotage the Minsk agreements, such as provocative activities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the conflict zone, including the use of Bayraktar attack drones.”
Turkey and Russia’s differences extend beyond the issue of Ukraine to the situations in Libya and Syria, where the countries support different sides. The Kazakhstan crisis is likely to push Turkey and Russia into more confrontation in the region and the international arena. Turkey and Russia’s relationship has interestingly strengthened since a Turkish F-16s downed a Russian warplane in the Turkey-Syria border area on Oct. 25, 2015 after Turkey claimed that the Russian jet had violated Turkish airspace for a period of just 17 seconds. Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian Su-24 was the first time in more than 63 years that a NATO jet had shot down a Russian aircraft. Putin initially threatened Turkey, but the tension quickly eased following an apology by Erdoğan and Turkey’s subsequent order for a Russian S-400 air defense system. However, the main factor behind peace between Erdoğan and Putin was the mediation of Kazakhstan’s former president, Nur Sultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev is a former Communist Party politburo member who had established a strong relationship with Putin. But Nazarbayev is no longer in power. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev invited the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to help control protestors in the first week of January. Tokayev did not invite the Organization of Turkic States, formerly called the Turkic Council, an international organization that was first proposed by Nazarbayev in 2006 and launched in 2009. Tokayev preferred Russia over Turkey and has been purging Nazarbayev’s loyalists from key positions. Of course, the motivation behind Turkey’s involvement in Kazakhstan is different from that of its involvement in Ukraine. Erdoğan is pursuing Turkic unity together with his election ally, Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli. Prominent Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandarlı commented in a piece published by Al-Monitor on Jan. 12 that Turkey seems to have lost track of developments in Kazakhstan since Tokayev preferred the Russian-led military bloc and that the crisis represents a defeat of Turkish nationalism on foreign policy.
Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın said on Tuesday that Erdoğan will be traveling to Kyiv ‘in a couple of weeks’ to try to ease tension with Russia. Despite Ankara’s efforts for “peace,” the Kremlin rejects Erdogan’s offers of mediation because of Turkey’s drone sale to Ukraine.
Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and is currently home to NATO’s second largest army. The country has, however, not been involved in any full-fledged wars since its establishment in 1923. However, the Erdoğan government has been supporting several jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya since 2011, and the Turkish Armed Forces began a direct military intervention into Syria in 2016. Turkish drones were actively used recently against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, and The Wall Street Journal last week reported that the Ethiopian government used Turkish drones to destroy rebels in Tigray. The Ukrainian government claimed last week that it had destroyed a D-30 howitzer used by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
Despite the dangers in Ukraine as a country at war, with tourism organizations reporting Ukraine to be one of the riskiest holiday destinations in the world, there has been a tourist boom between Turkey and Ukraine in recent years. An estimated 20 planes fly from Turkey to various cities in Ukraine every day, while many Turks also travel there by car. Euronews reported in December 2019 that more than 80 percent of Turks visiting Ukraine do so with the intent of establishing relationships with “blue-eyed, fairer-skinned Ukrainian women” and for alcohol.
Erdoğan remains well aware that he is playing with fire in Ukraine, but his own family is directly benefitting from drone sales since his son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar produces the drones. Turks are historically known for their hit-and-run military tactics since they have had fewer numbers of troops while challenging major powers in history. Bayraktar drones appear to have become a new tool for Turks in carrying out quick military attacks in many parts of the world.