Turkish-Ukrainian defense partnership in a new geopolitical realm

In his 2021 Atlantic Council article, Ukraine’s top diplomat, Dmytro Kuleba, argued that Ukraine and Turkey should pursue a coherent vision for security of the Black Sea together. Kuleba emphasized the need for NATO to see the Ukrainian-Turkish defense partnership as a valuable driver that can contribute to the region’s stability.

Less than a year later, the Russian aggression against Ukraine at NATO’s doorstep underscored the importance of Kuleba’s words. When the dust settles, the international community may, for the first time, witness what a real post-Soviet Russia looks like. The Turkish-Ukrainian strategic partnership would mark a promising window of opportunity for Western military industries in the post-Soviet space.

Think geopolitically: Turkey and Ukraine can rejuvenate European military resiliency

In early February 2022, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Kyiv to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Welcoming Erdoğan’s visit, Zelenskyy focused on defense and aviation industry collaboration during the talks, describing cooperation in these segments “as a driving force” behind the bilateral strategic partnership. The objective, he stated, is to implement high-value, specific projects; establish joint ventures; and facilitate the exchange of expertise and technology. During the visit, Turkey and Ukraine agreed to coproduce Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in Ukraine.

As the ideas promoting a “political NATO” have sunk without a trace following the Russian aggression at the Alliance’s east, NATO is fast rolling back to its Cold War roots. NATO’s present Strategic Concept document, adopted at the Alliance’s 2022 Madrid summit, considers Russia a direct threat to the allied nations in Europe. The paradigm laid out at the Erdoğan-Zelenskyy summit is thus gaining more ground. At present and for the foreseeable future, NATO members’ capacity and their capabilities have become the prime question. Notably, in a few years, NATO members Turkey and Poland, as well as the Alliance’s partner Ukraine, will likely field among the largest armed forces across Europe.

Corvettes, drones, and more

Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Turkey and Ukraine have discovered shared geopolitical interests in Black Sea security. While Ankara has not adopted a pronounced anti-Russia stance in the region, Turkey’s contributions to rebuild Ukraine’s navy, which has lost most of its platforms following the Russian aggression against Crimea, speak volumes.

Kyiv has opted to procure MILGEM/Ada-class corvettes from Ankara. According to the manufacturer, STM, Ada-class corvettes are designed to conduct a broad array of operations, including the determination, location, classification, identification, and destruction of underwater, air, and surface targets, as well as to provide naval gunfire support. Patrol and maritime surveillance missions, as well as infrastructure and coastal protection, also fall under the MILGEM/Ada-class corvettes’ mission portfolio.  

The Turkish-Ukrainian corvette deal aims to manufacture four platforms based on the MILGEM/Ada-class design philosophy with the goal of rebuilding Ukraine’s battered navy. Manifesting the predominant trend in Turkish-Ukrainian joint defense ventures, the deal extends to coproduction arrangements between the two nations. Ukraine is the first country to which Turkey has granted coproduction privileges for the corvette baseline in question. Finally, the Ukrainian Navy’s Ada-class surface vessels can potentially introduce yet another critical weaponry to Kyiv’s arsenal. While Ukraine had initially planned to equip its new corvettes with Neptune missiles, with the Ukrainian defense industry currently overstretched, Turkey might soon advance its offer of the ATMACA anti-ship cruise missile to Kyiv. Albeit significant in defense-technological scale, these capability-building efforts will translate into a warfighting edge in the long run.

Besides strategic partnerships in the maritime domain, another key segment of Turkish-Ukrainian defense cooperation is drone warfare. Following its successful combat record in different conflict zones of the world, the “Pantsir-killer drone” Bayraktar TB2 has shown its combat capabilities against the Russian columns, particularly in the opening stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. More importantly, at a time when the West offered help to Zelenskyy’s government to evacuate Kyiv, the Bayraktar TB2 drones’ successes were not solely about combat capabilities but also political warfare and keeping the morale high among the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ ranks.

Nowadays, the Turkish-Ukrainian strategic partnership in drone warfare is setting sail to new horizons. The joint production of Turkey’s rising strategic drone Akinci (Raider), as well as the unmanned turbofan-engine aircraft Kizilelma (Red Apple), mark the perfect marriage between Ankara and Kyiv in defense technology.

Ukraine brings a significant amount of defense industrial innovation know-how to the table. When matched with Turkey’s cutting edge in smart systems and drone warfare assets, the Turkish-Ukrainian strategic partnership is a true source of synergy. The Akinci drone’s first batch is powered by Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress engines. Similarly, the Kizilelma baseline will use two different Ukrainian Motor Sich engines in various variants. The initial units fly with AI-25TLT turbofan engines. The following batches will be powered by the afterburner-capable AI-322F engines which will upgrade the unmanned aircraft to a transonic platform. These examples showcase the growing trust between the parties and could help strengthen cooperation among the Black Sea nations.

Last, Turkish defense company Baykar’s drone-manufacturing plant marks what Turkish-Ukrainian defense cooperation will look like in the future. The factory will turn operational within two years.  Above all, Ukraine will become a TB2 producer nation soon. The project is also significant as it will boost the Turkish-Ukrainian strategic partnership and unveils new opportunities for joint research and development (R&D) activity.

A different European security architecture when the dust settles

At present, and perhaps in the history of mankind, NATO is the most successful political-military alliance in the world. Official writings consider NATO’s flexibility and its ability to adapt to changing defense landscapes to be the underlying reason behind the Alliance’s successful record so far. Nevertheless, the Alliance has to cope with a grim imbalance. Most member states cannot field combat-proven militaries for large-scale operations. Notably, merely two allied nations—the United States and Turkey—have ground forces that outnumber the Russian Western Military District. Worse, the armed forces of two-thirds of the allied nations are outmanned alone by Russia’s airborne branch (VDV), which employed some forty-five thousand before the invasion of Ukraine. 

The Turkish Armed Forces have extensive combat experience and increasingly depend on indigenously produced weapon systems. In 2022, the annual turnover of the Turkish defense industry reached $12 billion. This marked an impressive 20 percent increase from 2021. Remarkably, turnover per capita rose to $150,000 in 2022, 12 percent more than the previous year. Around $4.5 billion of the $12 billion revenue came from exports, translating to an annual increase of 37 percent. Imports accounted for approximately $2.7 billion of the total turnover. Between 2021 and 2022, R&D expenditure hit $2 billion, and financial initiatives for R&D projects increased by 21 percent. In 2022, the Turkish defense industry employed 81,132 people, 7 percent more than in 2021.

Over the past twelve to eighteen months, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have come to operate a wide array of Western weaponry ranging from Javelin anti-tank missiles and Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Patriot air and missile defense systems and Stinger man-portable air-defense systems. More is on the way. This is a dramatic reversal of European—and US—reticence to provide lethal aid to Ukraine early in the war.

A sustainable model, based on technology exchange, co-development, and mutual trust between combat-experienced near-peers, is deepening of the decade-long bilateral defense relationship between Ukraine and Turkey.

Can Kasapoglu is a non-resident senior fellow at Hudson Institute, and the director of the Security & Defense Research Program at Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter @ckasapoglu1.

Image: Bayraktar TB2 drone stands near the logo of Baykar Turkish defence company inside a hall of 30th international Defence Industry Exhibition in Kielce, Poland September 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel