From the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey became one of the central players in the conflict. Ankara has explicitly criticized Moscow, closed the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles to warships, and continued to provide essential political and military aid to Ukraine. Moreover, Turkey’s constant support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Ankara’s defense of the rights of the Crimean Tatar minority since 2014 greatly irritate the Kremlin.
While various European countries have been reluctant to give up their dependence on Moscow, mainly in the energy sector, Turkey has started supplying the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) to the Ukraine from 2018. The TB2 has shown its effectiveness in Libya, Syria and Karabakh. Especially in the last case, during the Second Karabakh War (September-November 2020), the TB2s were hailed as “the conqueror of Karabakh”. However, the first use of a TB2 by the Ukrainian army in the Donbass region took place on October 26, 2021. Since then, the TB2 has become a national and international phenomenon.
Turkey: world power of drones
Turkey’s rise as a global drone power is not only one of the most significant geopolitical developments in recent years, but it can also be called a game-changer for the post-Cold War order. . The Turkish drones that have revolutionized modern warfare are also impacting geopolitical dynamics in several important regions.
The development and production of cheap but effective unmanned aerial vehicles, along with several other factors, have helped Ankara cement its status as a regional power or distinct regional hub in what some experts may consider a growing multipolar world. . Moreover, Turkish-built drones have enabled several regional players to independently solve their own national and international problems.
Current TB2 operators are known to include Turkey, Qatar, Libya, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Turkmenistan, Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan, with Niger soon to receive its first TB2s. Poland should receive its first copies in 2022 and will be the second NATO member state to operate this type after Turkey. Currently in service in (or ordered by) seventeen countries, the Bayraktar TB2 is already the most commercially successful drone to date. As indicated by the new export agreements that Turkey has signed with several countries, there is no doubt that the Bayraktar TB2 will continue to extend its lead over other UCAVs in the years to come.
Although some experts have called Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine a policy of “closure”, Ankara continues to export military equipment to Kyiv and proactively supports the Ukrainians . At the same time, Turkey is trying to maintain its relations with Russia for a series of economic and geopolitical reasons. Nevertheless, the proliferation of Turkish drones from the Baltic to the Black Sea and possibly Central Asia could create between Russia and NATO what Yusuf Erim called a “Crescent Drone” barrier.
Turkey’s position, despite its support for Ukraine, has provoked many unfair and unjustified reactions from the West. While France and Germany have deepened their relationship with Russia for decades, and the latter has strongly supported the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, the United Kingdom, the United States and Turkey continue to arm and support Kyiv. Moreover, the TB2 was not only used in Ukraine. Poland, another NATO member threatened by Russia, became the first country in the alliance to buy Turkish drones in 2021.
The Western Whim and the Bayraktar
Turkish drones and their role have also created controversy. Especially during and after the 2020 Karabakh war, Ankara was harshly criticized for its use and sale of drones and condemned by international human rights organizations. Several companies supplying spare parts to Bayraktar have stopped cooperating: Bombardier Recreational Products suspended the delivery of its engines in October 2020, while exports of WESCAM (optics and sensors) were restricted by the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to around the same time.
The successful operation of Bayraktar drones has also worried dozens of US lawmakers, who have called on the State Department to suspend licenses to export US drone technology to Turkey pending an investigation. official on the destabilizing role of Turkish drone programs in many parts of the world.
“The potential for these drones to further destabilize flashpoints in Caucuses [sic]South Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa is too big to ignore,” twenty-seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives said in a letter to the Secretary of State. US State Antony Blinken in August 2021.
Yet the Bayraktars’ operation in Ukraine against the Russian onslaught seemed to change the West’s rhetoric and actions against Turkish-made drones.
In early March, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his country would provide $50 million in new military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Part of this money was to be used to buy Wescam surveillance cameras for Ukrainian armed drones Bayraktar TB2, which the same government had previously banned from the Turkish company.
This hypocrisy can be brilliantly illustrated by Western media coverage: German tabloid Bild, which called TB2s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s “killer drones” in 2020, changed its rhetoric to glorify the same drones as “weapons of Hope” two years later while covering the Russian-Ukrainian war. Another striking example is a recent article in the Atlanticwhich examined the dynamics behind the new Ukrainian song on Bayraktar.
Turkish military support for Azerbaijan against Armenia in the 2020 Second Karabakh War has also been described as “Turkey’s Caucasus adventure” and treated as a danger to NATO. However, Ankara officially supported its partner who, like Ukraine, was fighting for its territorial integrity in a conflict with a “Russian ally”, as described by the FinancialTimes.
We can see other examples of a rapid – and somewhat worrying – shift in the rhetoric of Western media and political circles towards Turkey’s drone power, which is expanding its influence in a geopolitical sphere stretching from Morocco. in Qatar. One wonders whether Western admiration or at least tacit approval of Turkish-made drones, because of their significant contribution to Ukrainian resistance against Russia, will once again turn into criticism of Turkey’s regional role and its “killer drones” after the war in Eastern Europe. is finished.
Yet Western hypocrisy towards Turkish influence and military-diplomatic power will likely affect Turkish domestic politics in the future. A recent study by Metropoll Research in January 2022, just before the Russian invasion, demonstrated that Turkish public opinion supported prioritizing Russia and China in foreign affairs (39.4%) over the US and EU (37.5%). As long as Western elites continue to associate Turkey with Erdogan and equate his leadership with the wishes of the Turkish people, there will be no solid mutual relationship between Ankara and Western capitals. With Western discourse and policies towards Turkey constantly changing, in line with contemporary geopolitical developments, it seems difficult to establish mutual understanding.
Rusif Huseynov is co-founder and director of the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. He received his bachelor’s degree from Baku State University and his master’s degree from Tartu University. He is a ReThink.CEE Fellow (2021) from the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a local focal point within the EU4Dialogue project.
Oğul Tuna is an expert at the Topchubashov Center and holds a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the national question and the conflicts in the South Caucasus. He received his bachelor’s degree from Galatasaray University in Istanbul, Turkey, and a master’s degree from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in Lille, France.