Russia’s aggressive policy in the Black Sea region has brought Ukraine to heel, forcing it to look for allies. Although it seems to us that Kyiv’s main ally should be Poland, as well as the powers from the core of Europe, Germany and France, Turkey is becoming a key partner for Ukraine’s security, capable of stopping Russian expansionism. Will Poland join this Black Sea cooperation?
The balance of power in the Black Sea basin is becoming shakier and shakier. Moscow’s appetite for expanding its sphere of influence was stopped neither by the detachment of Abkhazia from Georgia nor the annexation of Crimea. In March, the mobilization of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine made it clear that the threat from the East was real and could become reality at any moment.
This danger was noticed by the Republic of Turkey a few years ago. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned against turning the Black Sea into a „Russian lake” and called for NATO to be more involved in the region.
The dialogue between members of the Normandy Format (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) has still not strengthened Kyiv’s position significantly. Poland, for which Ukraine’s stability is a key element of its security, has not found sufficient recognition in the eyes of Kyiv, neither at the diplomatic level (we were not invited to the Normandy Four talks), nor in terms of hard power and military support. This gap was filled by Turkey, which has been condemning the occupation of Crimea just as loudly as Poland since 2014 and has significantly revived cooperation with Ukraine.
Diplomacy complemented by hard power
On April 10, the presidents of Turkey and Ukraine met in Istanbul. The agenda covered the defense sector of both countries and the development of cooperation in terms of security.
The statement by Volodymyr Zelensky and Erdogan included support for Ukraine’s aspirations to membership in the European Union and NATO, concern about the escalation of the conflict on the Russian-Ukrainian border and an appeal for a diplomatic solution to the war by restoring compliance with the Minsk agreements.
Two days after the meeting, Moscow announced that due to the growing number of coronavirus infections over the Bosphorus, it was suspending passenger flights in that direction. While Turkey has indeed experienced a peak in the number of Covid-19 cases during that time, the motivation behind Russia’s actions was different. They are concerned about the ever-closer relationship on the Ankara-Kyiv line, and halting the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey was to be an element of pressure. In mid-April, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned Ankara against militarizing Ukraine.
Zelensky’s meetings with Erdogan are becoming more and more regular. Two months earlier, on February 3, the leaders of the countries signed an agreement in Kyiv on cooperation in the defense sector. This area complements the political dialogue the two countries have been conducting more and more intensively for several years, which results in e.g. 2017 visa-free travel agreement. At the moment, more than 30 armaments contracts are being implemented, focusing primarily on the maritime and air aspects.
Ukrainian industry prides itself on manufacturing engines. In October 2020, Ivchenko-Progress signed a contract with the Turkish Roketsan for supplies for Gezgin cruise missiles (similar to the American Tomahawks). The contract is to be implemented this year. Apart from that, Kyiv also supplies Ankara with helicopter engines, radar and air defense systems.
The inefficient Ukrainian shipyards will benefit from Turkish technological thought, which we discussed here. They will soon receive four ADA-type corvettes, which have already been appreciated, among others, by the Pakistani army. The production of corvettes will be completed in Ukraine, thanks to which it will gain access to technologies that meet NATO standards. Military technologies in the airspace and defense are supported by Black Sea Shield – a Turkish-Ukrainian consortium making jet engines, precision weapons and unmanned aerial drones.
Turkish drones in service of Ukraine’s and… Poland’s security
It is drones that are the thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Yurij Borisov, announced a revision of cooperation with Turkey, should Ankara decide to sell them to Kyiv. Bayraktar TB2 drones have been on the minds of international military experts for many months now. They were successfully used in Syria against Kurdish guerrillas, and then turned the tide of the almost doomed Libyan civil war, tipping the scales towards a Turkish-backed Tripolitan government. This was noted by decision-makers in Azerbaijan, who equipped their army with these aircraft. Azerbaijan soon attacked Armenia-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and had an overwhelming success in retaking large territories before a peace deal was signed.
Ukraine is another buyer of the Bayraktar brand. In 2018, it ordered six, and in 2019 – twelve. Adapting them to naval operations will be useful in the Black and Azov Seas. Drones can be used for patrols, transfer of military equipment and assault operations. The Black Sea Shield will soon produce 48 Bayraktars, the engines of which are supplied by the Ukrainian side. Turkey and Ukraine want to exchange technology and strengthen their armed forces. In the future, Ukrainian engines can be designed and manufactured by the Bosphorus and used in tanks and fighters, and in exchange Ukraine wants to export drones from its factories.
Poland also decided to buy Turkish drones. On 25th of May, during the presidential couple’s visit to Turkey, one of the issues that Andrzej Duda discussed with Erdogan was the development of cooperation in the Poland-Ukraine-Turkey trilogue. Duda also signed an agreement for the purchase of 24 Turkish drones – thus we became the first NATO country to be armed with this model. Such a decision is quite surprising due to the relatively strong domestic drone market – the Warmate combat drones from the private defense company WB Electronics have already gained international recognition, being used by Ukraine and foreign actors (Turkey and the UAE) in the Libyan civil war. Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (Polish Armaments Group) is also developing technologies in this area.
Warmates, however, like the equally popular Flyeyes from the same manufacturer, are lower-class drones than Bayraktars, as mentioned by the Minister of National Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak, in an interview for Polish Radio. This does not change the fact that the Polish industry has the potential to successfully develop its technologies and arm the Polish army with them. Poland may benefit from the exchange of unmanned aerial vehicle technologies if the Turkish offer complements the development of Polish technologies. In this context Błaszczak informed that the contract also covers the training and logistics package as well as the maintenance offset.
Conclusions for Poland
Turkey and Ukraine are united by a common threat from Russia, as mentioned by President Zelensky in April. Ukraine is not content with the merely rhetorical support of the West, which is afraid to antagonize Russia (like Germany and France) and therefore turns its eyes to Turkey. Thus, the country meets NATO’s demands and revives heavily damaged relations with the EU and the United States. At the same time, it is pursuing its own national interest by strengthening the Ukrainian security buffer that is slowing down Russia’s expansion.
What does the rapprochement between Ukraine and Turkey mean for Poland? Polish foreign policy is largely based on building a stable, safe and sovereign environment beyond the eastern border. If these goals are supported by third countries, such as Turkey in this case, then our policy is in line with our raison d’état. Ankara’s sustained support will certainly strengthen Ukraine’s resilience to Russian influence. A strong Ukraine is also a greater challenge for the Kremlin. This means a greater commitment of attention and resources in this section and greater caution in taking active military action.
Turkey’s attractiveness in the eyes of Ukraine may also make us realize that Poland’s position is still not strong enough. We were unable to be included in the Normandy Format in 2014, which revealed how weak our position is. It turns out that Ukraine is also ready to base its hard security not on an alliance with Poland, but with its Black Sea neighbor on the basin’s southern shore.
Turkey under pressure
Developing relations also carries real and relevant dangers. There are opinions that Ukraine will become part of the transactional system linking Russia and Turkey on the battlefields in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Given that Germany and France are limiting themselves to merely saying their words of encouragement while pursuing their interests with Russia such as Nord Stream II, it would be hypocritical to require Turkey to be uncompromising when it comes to Moscow.
Contrary to Paris and Berlin, Ankara’s interests in the Black Sea are directly affected by Russia; therefore Turkey takes its threats seriously and will not be willing to „trade” vital interests and its own security to gain an advantage in less sensitive areas in the Middle East.
Burying the hatchet in relations with the European Union and NATO at the end of last year also has considerable consequences for Ankara. Under enormous political pressure, the country reached an understanding with Greece and calmed the conflict in the Mediterranean Sea. It can hardly be expected that Turkey would immediately waste this warming relationship.
The country’s economy is on the brink of collapse, the Turkish lira is at an all-time low, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the increasing economic problems. Society’s economic situation will play a key role in the 2023 parliamentary elections, and unleashing conflicts at the borders will not satisfy the aspirations of moderately patriotic citizens. Turkey will therefore stay on the thawing course in its relations with Brussels in the coming months.
Si vis pacem, para bellum
Poland should appreciate the Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation and an attempt to de-escalate tensions – the outbreak of war would have enormous consequences for us as well. An increased wave of refugees could be expected, which would open a new chapter in the political conflict with Brussels. Increased immigration could be used by jihadists wishing to get to Western Europe through Poland. The risk would be all the more real as Turkey’s shady relations with Islamists in the region are still a thing, and radical Islamic fighters would support Ukrainian ranks on the battlefield, rather than the regular Turkish troops.
Fortunately, Turkey, like Ukraine, is aware of the costs and risks of escalating the conflict. Kyiv would be doomed to be devoured were it to make a tough response to Russia’s provocations. Although the strength of the Turkish navy is much greater and it could compete with Russia in the Black Sea, the potential gains are too slim to be worth the risk. That is why both Kyiv and Ankara are striving to return to the negotiating table. It is also a fulfillment of President Zelensky’s election promise to peacefully resolve the issue of Crimea and Donbas.
The scenario for the coming months is the continuation of the supply of military equipment from Turkey to Ukraine, appeals to respect its territorial integrity and calls to de-escalate tensions, and also appeals from the Turkish side to protect Crimean Tatars, whom Russia recognizes as a national minority, but not the indigenous inhabitants of Crimea. Russia is willing to fuel the conflict and provoke Ukraine’s response, but Ukraine is aware of the too high a risk and will focus on building a strong and well-equipped army in the coming months.
Polish version is available here.
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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.