If Russia succeeds in overthrowing the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it would be a major setback for Turkey’s drone programs, as well as other military aerospace projects.
Ankara and Kyiv had big plans to expand their cooperation to build drones together.
Turkey has sold Ukraine at least 20 Bayraktar TB2 armed drones in recent years, which Ukraine appears to be using effectively against Russian forces in the current war. In 2021, Ukraine announced it was building a drone factory to co-produce TB2s with Turkey. Ukraine is also supplying Turkey with engines for successor models of the TB2 and an attack helicopter under development, and there have been reports that their defense cooperation may deepen.
Then came Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The end of Turkey-Ukraine military-technical cooperation?
“Russia is looking to replace the Zelensky government with which Turkey did all the arms trading and replace it with a Russian client regime,” Nicholas Heras, deputy director of the human security unit at the Newlines Institute, told me. for Strategy and Policy.
“It is likely that US and EU sanctions would make it difficult for Turkey to do business with a Russian-backed post-war regime in Ukraine, period.”
Aaron Stein, research director at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research, speculates that if Zelensky is preempted, “pro-Russian leaders will not be as cordial to Ankara – a NATO member – and that there will have less enthusiasm to sell material to Turkey.”
Stein noted that Ankara had turned to Ukraine for the first engines for its new Bayraktar Akinci drone, the successor to the famous TB2, and the T929 heavy attack helicopter it is developing.
“Turkey will have to find alternative suppliers,” he told me. “Beyond that, it has been reported that Turkey may work with Ukrainian turbofan producers for the engines of the TF-X and MIUS projects.”
The TAI TF-X is Turkey’s fifth generation stealth fighter project and the Bayraktar MIUS, which stands for Combat Unmanned Aircraft System, is a planned jet drone.
“Again, we don’t know, but my basic assumption is that these two fledgling efforts will also go up in smoke,” Stein said. “Turkey could look elsewhere, maybe Rolls Royce or American companies, but that’s a choice the people of Ankara have to make.”
James Rogers, assistant professor of war studies at SDU in Denmark, predicts that any Russian destruction or takeover of Ukraine’s defense industry will impact Turkey’s drone production in “two main ways”. .
“First, it will slow down the production of Turkish Akinci drones (which are powered by Ukrainian-made Ivchenko-Progress AI-450 turboprops),” he told me. “Secondly, it will slow down the development of the advanced Turkish Bayraktar MIUS (which was to be powered by the Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress AI-322F Turbofan engine).”
“This will likely downgrade Turkey’s planned drone exports and slow the buildup of its own arsenal.”
Rogers also pointed out that the future of the TF-X program is generally uncertain and involves “many moving parts, with the United States, Russia and Ukraine all involved in aspects of production.”
“As a result, there is little doubt that the current conflict in Ukraine will complicate the progress of the project,” he said.
Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, where he is a member of the Russia Studies program, also predicts that any future military-technical cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine “will be determined by the outcome of this conflict and the state of independent decision-making of the Ukrainian government vis-à-vis its international partners after the end of the fighting.”
If Russia achieves its goals and succeeds in forcing Ukraine to adhere to its foreign policy demands, “then military cooperation with Turkey would be ruled out as one of the conditions for a more pro-Russian Ukraine.”
“If, on the other hand, Ukraine retains the ability to make its own choices after the end of this war, it will be able to maintain its ties with Turkey,” Bendett told me. “Nevertheless, Russia could try to force a ban on the development and acquisition of long-range combat drones by Ukraine as a price for peace, similar to the possible restriction on the development and use of missiles long-range by Ukraine, assuming Russia achieves its military gains and the current Ukrainian government is still in power.”
However, if Russia succeeds in forcing Zelensky out of power and replacing him with a pro-Russian leader, “then the entire Ukrainian military program can be reviewed and new priorities set.”
“It is my understanding that Turkey wanted engines for Akinci, and so if the aforementioned conditions are in place, they may have to develop such engines domestically or try to find them elsewhere,” Bendett said.
“Ultimately, the loss of Ukraine as a military-technical partner would not have much effect on Turkey assuming alternative avenues of technology acquisition were found.”
Can TB2 be a game changer for Ukraine?
2020 has been a pivotal year for the Turkish drone Bayraktar TB2. Its headlining operational use on the battlefields of Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh has attracted dozens of export customers from Africa, Central Asia and Europe.
Ukraine had at least 20 TB2s at the start of this war after first ordering the drone in 2019.
“On the battlefield, a narrow dynamic to watch is the extent of Ukraine’s deployment of TB2s against Russian forces, and if so, the effectiveness of drones against conventional Russian forces,” he said. said Heras. “Ukraine will be the toughest test for Turkey’s most publicized defense export.”
However, Baker and Bendett doubt that Ukrainian TB2s could play a similar game-changing role in this current conflict to that played by Azerbaijani TB2s in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
“The Ukraine crisis is not the same as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Rogers said. “Russia has much more air defense experience (since its fight against ISIS drones in Syria) and has the ability to degrade command and control of hostile drones.”
It is therefore not surprising that the drones “have not had the same level of success as in the Caucasus”.
“It is a commonly accepted truth that in the face of an advanced state military, even the most advanced level of current drone technology – not just TB2s – would struggle to operate effectively,” Rogers said.
Bendett also pointed out that the Russian military had previously insisted that the TB2 posed no great threat to its forces given their “advanced early warning, electronic warfare and air defense technologies – the technology that was largely absent on such a scale in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.”
If most or even all of the Ukrainian TB2s are ultimately destroyed in this war, it is unlikely to affect Turkey’s ability to market and export them.
“I don’t think TB2 sales prospects would be affected if they were lost in Ukraine – after all, TB2s were also lost in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh to older air defense systems from Soviet-made,” Bendett said. “The TB2 is seen by many countries as a bargain, and until a good competitor enters the market, it can enjoy strong sales.”
He concluded by pointing out that the Russian defense industry is marketing its Orion drone as a competitor to the TB2, bragging that it can fly faster and higher than its Turkish rival.