Why Ukraine’s Turkish-made drone has become a flashpoint in tensions with Russia

Liudmyla Kulik stands near her damaged chicken coop and a fallen tree on December 14, 2021. The damage was caused by shelling in October in Hranitne, Ukraine. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine – In drone eye video released by the Ukrainian military, a small blue targeting square hovers over an image on the ground.

After several seconds, a large plume of smoke shoots from the spot. Two people are then seen fleeing the site, where Ukraine claims to have destroyed a D-30 howitzer used by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region.

But the October 26 strike – by a Bayraktar TB2 drone made by NATO member Turkey – was more than just another clash in nearly eight years of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

For Russia, it was another signal that Ukraine is beefing up its arsenal to potentially shift the military balance in the region – and why Moscow is asking NATO to end all defense cooperation with Ukraine. and other former Soviet republics such as Georgia. The United States and its NATO allies say Russia can never dictate policy.

The stalemate was clear during high-stakes diplomatic talks in Europe this week between the West and Russia, leaving Russian officials to suggest future dialogue is pointless. Russia threatened to take “military technical” measures if its demands were denied.

Moscow has denied that its buildup of more than 100,000 troops and military equipment near the Ukrainian border is plotting an attack on the country, although US intelligence has warned that a multi-pronged invasion could take place as early as this month -this.

“Russia is seeing a trend where all these NATO countries are increasingly delivering weapons to Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It’s not that big yet, but I think they see the trendline, and they don’t like where that trendline is going.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly claimed that NATO could position a long-range missile system in Ukraine soon, although there are no indications that the military alliance has considered such a move.

While US-supplied weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles have made headlines in Ukraine’s arsenal, Turkey’s less publicized support for Kyiv has raised alarm bells in Moscow. Not only was the purchase of the Bayraktar TB2 drones made without apparent conditions of use, but Turkey and Ukraine have agreed to launch a production site for the drones in Ukraine.

“I think, of course, it creates completely different conditions for hostilities,” said Serhiy Zgurets, a Ukrainian military expert. “It is an element of emotional and real influence on the enemy.”

Although Ukraine purchased its first Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2019, it had refrained from using them for strikes in the Donbass conflict until the frontline village of Hranitne came under heavy shelling on October 26. . The drones had been used for reconnaissance flights.

Separatist artillery strikes in October razed civilian homes and injured two armed Ukrainian servicemen, one of whom died. In a statement, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it first demanded a ceasefire through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine, but that “the reaction of the Russian occupying forces was negative”. The single drone strike followed.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to increase the tactics and methods of combat use of the Bayraktars to deter Russian aggression and protect Ukraine’s interests,” the statement said.

In a December phone conversation between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin referred to Ukrainian use of Turkish-made drones, calling it “destructive” behavior and “provocative activity”, according to the report. Kremlin reading. Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu said Ankara could not be blamed for Ukraine’s deployment of arms.

“This is already completely unpleasant news for the Russians, because this is a dramatic increase in combat capabilities,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a Kyiv-based military blogger. “Ukraine is in the process of acquiring what is considered a ‘game-changing app.'”

Bayraktar TB2 drones offer nations stealth air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. They have featured prominently in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, but it may have been their use by Azerbaijan in 2020 against Armenia that offered Ukraine an inspiring role model.

During 44 days of fighting over the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, drones targeted Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroyed tanks, artillery and air defense systems. They tipped the balance in the more than three-decade-long conflict for Azerbaijan, which has regained territory under a ceasefire agreement with Armenia.

While some NATO countries are cautious about arms sales to Ukraine, Turkey is a “wild card”, said Lee, the Russian military expert. Germany, for example, blocked Ukraine’s purchase of defensive weapons through the NATO Supply and Support Agency, Ukrainian officials said.

Russia and Germany are cooperating economically through the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which crosses Danish waters to Germany, bypassing existing supply routes via Ukraine. Some Western countries are reluctant to supply more weapons to Ukraine because it could be seen as a provocation for Russia, or even serve as a pretext for an attack.

“They’re scared,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said of the Germans. “They are constantly sticking rods in our tires because of this issue.”

Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul-based Center for Economic Studies and Foreign Policy, said Turkey’s support for Ukraine was a “delicate and difficult balancing act” because of Turkey’s relationship with Russia, which has “elements of cooperation but elements of competition and rivalry”. .”

This has resulted in a complicated geopolitical relationship between Moscow and Ankara over the past few years.

Turkish and Russian soldiers and mercenaries have clashed in armed conflicts in Syria and Libya. At the same time, Turkey bought a sophisticated air defense system from Russia, a move that angered its NATO partners and led to sanctions from the United States.

While Erdogan’s government has taken a hard line in refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, it has not followed Europe and the United States in sanctioning Moscow.

Turkey also sees Ukraine as an opportunity to expand the growing list of customers for its armed drones and leverage Ukraine’s defense production capabilities, including its ability to manufacture rocket engines, Ulgen said.

At the mention of “Turkish drones”, Danilov answered: “They are ours, which we bought… The engines of these drones are manufactured in our country.

But while drones have been a game-changer in other battles between countries with less sophisticated military hardware, they are unlikely to make much of a difference against Russia, Lee said. The Russian Ministry of Defense has already published images of training exercises to learn how to counter the Bayraktar TB2 drones.

“If Ukraine fights with Russia, Russia will destroy them,” Lee said. “Russia could shoot them down, or even before that they can destroy the airfields where the TB2s are operating, or they can destroy the ground control station.”

“The TB2s have never been confronted with an integrated air defense system like Russia’s,” he added.

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Kareem Fahim of The Washington Post in Istanbul and Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.

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