Ukrainian army hails Turkish drones but Ankara downplays arms sales

Turkish-made armed Bayraktar drones are so popular with the Ukrainian military that the weapons are celebrated in song. “We took offense to these orcs. Russian bandits are turned into ghosts by Bayraktar,” read the words to the beat posted on the Army’s Facebook page.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry posted an image of a police dog named Bayraktar on Twitter, and a lemur born in the Kiev zoo was also named after the drones that destroyed Russian tanks and missile systems these days. last days.

The glowing Ukrainian tributes stand in contrast to Turkey’s efforts to play down arms sales to Kiev, fearful of stoking Russian anger as it tries to carve out a mediating role in the conflict. He hosted the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers on March 10 for the highest-level diplomatic meeting between the two nations since the war began on February 24.

As other NATO members supply Ukraine with anti-tank weapons and missiles to help it resist Russia’s attack, Turkey has portrayed the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to a company co-founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law as another business deal.

“It is not aid from Turkey. It is a product bought by Ukraine from a company in Turkey,” Yavuz Selim Kiran, deputy foreign minister, told the Daily Sabah newspaper this month. , while praising the “game-changing” drones.

“The fact that it has become one of the main deterrents of the Ukrainian army actually shows the success and quality of the products produced by our company,” he said. “Everyone is lining up to buy the drones.”

Turkey’s caution reflects the complex alliance Erdogan has forged with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ankara has bought advanced Russian missiles, outraged Turkey’s NATO allies, but it has backed opposing sides in Libya and Syria. Erdogan has condemned the invasion of Ukraine but opposes sanctions against Russia, on which Turkey depends for tourism, wheat and most of its energy imports.

He also deepened defense cooperation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The leaders agreed last month to jointly produce a new generation of drones, developing a 2019 deal for at least 20 drones from Istanbul-based defense firm Baykar.

Baykar is headed by Selcuk Bayraktar, an engineer with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is married to Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye and his two brothers.

The pact with Ukraine is part of a broader “drone diplomacy” that has allowed Turkey to exercise its foreign policy priorities and establish military partnerships with the dozen governments that have acquired or ordered the Bayraktar TB2 drone.

“It is now an absolute priority of Turkey’s foreign policy to sell them. It’s one of their biggest exports,” said Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “For many countries, this is the smart choice. It far exceeds the capabilities of its low-cost Chinese competitor, and the American and Israeli systems are for many simply too expensive.

Inexpensive to manufacture and deploy, a TB2 costs around $5 million and has been combat tested in conflicts from North Africa to the Caucasus Mountains, often on Russian-made equipment, as well as against insurgents. Kurds in Turkey. An Israeli Heron costs around $10 million, while US-made drones cost $20 million or more. A Chinese unit can cost as little as $1 million, but its crash rate makes it less reliable than the TB2, experts report.

Aircraft demand has helped boost Turkish defense industry exports by 40% in 2021 to $3.22 billion, according to the Assembly of Turkish Exporters. Arms sales to Ukraine jumped 60-fold in the first two months of this year to $58.4 million, the figures show.

The TB2 is Ukraine’s only armed UAV, carrying up to four laser-guided munitions. “They are incredibly valuable precisely because they have no value. If Ukraine can. . . keep buying them and running them there, it’s an incredible irritant” for Russia, Stein said.

The drones are unlikely to influence the outcome of what is largely a ground war with Russia. But Ukraine’s tactical use of drones has acted as a “force multiplier”, giving the overwhelmed military the chance to hit key Russian targets, said Can Kasapoglu, director of the think tank’s defense program. from Istanbul EDAM.

Experts said the slow, low-flying TB2 is an easy target and will be increasingly challenged as Putin’s forces secure control of the Ukrainian skies. Moscow has already said it destroyed at least four Bayraktar drones and the base from which they were launched.

“Once the drones start to be challenged, they will start to break down. Thus, the air superiority that Russia relied on at the start of the conflict will be established,” said Mathieu Boulègue, researcher in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House.

Still, Kasapoglu says the main lesson other countries will learn from the use of Turkish drones in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and now Ukraine is their effectiveness against Russian weapons. Already, Poland has become the first NATO member to commit, ordering 24 armed Bayraktar TB2s last year.

“I expect NATO’s eastern flank to ‘dronise’ quickly with Turkish equipment after the war in Ukraine,” Kasapoglu said.

Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone and Roman Olearchyk in Lviv

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