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Erdogan signs pact with Ukraine on trade and drones

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement to strengthen defense cooperation with Ukraine, despite warnings from Moscow not to arm Kyiv further.

The Turkish leader reached a series of agreements on free trade and defense with Kyiv after three hours of talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian capital.

These include collaborating on the production of lethal drones in Ukraine, expanding a partnership in which Kyiv purchased at least 20 drones from Turkey – and deploying them against the separatists. Russia-backed claims.

Erdogan, who described Zelensky as a “close friend”, reiterated his support for the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine and Crimea and his offer to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. Turkey wants to “defuse tensions rather than promote military escalation,” he said.

Describing their relationship as one of “true friends,” Zelensky thanked Erdogan for his offer of reconciliation. “Today we signed an agreement that will significantly expand the production of Baykar UAVs in Ukraine,” Zelensky said.

But Erdogan faces a difficult balancing act. The fact that Turkey, a NATO member, shows support for Ukraine demonstrates its close but complicated relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and is Russia’s significant leverage over Turkey.

President of Turkey, for many years accused by the West of turning towards Moscow and abandoned Nato, has not only repeatedly warned of the risk of Russia getting deeper into Ukraine, but has also supplied the country with weapons including armed drones.

Backing Kyiv carries great risks for Turkey, analysts say, given its economic dependence on Russia and the risk that Putin could use gas, tourism, trade, and a civil war. conflict in Syria as a political weapon against Erdogan.

Vladimir Putin, left, and Erdogan, right, at the inauguration of the new gas pipeline in Istanbul in January 2020
Vladimir Putin, left, Russian President, and Erdogan, right, at the inauguration of a new gas pipeline in Istanbul in January 2020 © Ozan Kose / AFP via Getty Images

The Turkish President’s visit to Kyiv marks the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations and is long planned as part of a long-term effort to build economic, cultural and political ties. decade.

The decision to continue the trip despite the tense backdrop was seen in Kyiv as highly symbolic. Turkey opposes Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea due to its centuries-old suspicions of Russian expansionism and concern for Crimea’s minority Tatars.

However, Erdogan’s relationship with Putin has grown much closer in the years since, fueled by his growing isolation from the West.

The Turkish President’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system after a 2016 coup prompted claims that Turkey had abandoned NATO and prompted the United States to expel Turkey from its warplane program. fight their F-35.

However, despite the warm personal relationship between Erdogan and Putin, the two leaders often find themselves competing rather than collaborating – especially in the foreign policy arena. Turkish officials regularly indicate that they have supported the opposition to the Russians in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and in the Caucasus.

“They are very proud of the fact that they are the ones confronting Russia on the ground [in these areas],” said a US official. “This contradicts the sale of the S-400 but it is also true.”

Column chart of defense and aerospace exports showing Turkish defense sales to Ukraine have increased in recent years

Moscow is particularly annoyed by the growing defense cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine. Russian officials last October warned that Turkish drones could “destabilize” the front lines after the Ukrainian armed forces said a drone was flown by Turkey. The production period destroyed an artillery unit belonging to the Russian-backed separatists.

Even before Thursday’s deal, Ukraine had acquired “about 20” TB2 drones, according to Vasyl Bodnar, the country’s ambassador to Ankara, with more expected to follow.

Kyiv has also ordered two Turkish warships and Ukrainian defense companies are supplying engines for attack helicopters, Turkish-made cruise missiles and for a Baykar unmanned aerial vehicle. higher specifications.

Western nations were excited by Ankara’s willingness to continue supplying weapons. “Turkey’s material assistance to Ukraine is substantial,” the US official said, adding that Washington would be happy if Ankara simply did “much of the same thing”.

Like Germany, however, Ankara is acutely aware of pressure points that Putin could exploit if he feels that it has crossed a red line.

Turkey relies heavily on imported natural gas to fuel its power plants and heat its homes, and has Shortage This year. Nearly half of Turkey’s gas supplies came from Moscow in the first 11 months of 2021, according to data from Istanbul-based energy consulting firm IBS.

Mr. Putin has previously shown a willingness to give up Russian tourists, who were Turkey’s top foreign visitors in 2019. He banned package holidays to the country in 2015 after. when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane near the border with Syria.

The UK also banned the import of tomatoes from Turkey. Last year, Russia was the most important market for Turkish fruit and vegetable exports, generating a third of the region’s $3 billion in foreign income.

Burak Pehlivan, President of the Turkish-Ukrainian Business Association, said: “The potential economic disruption for Turkey is one of the reasons why Ankara is eager to see tensions ease. “Nobody in this geography is going to win a conflict,” he said. “The country most affected after Ukraine and Russia will be Turkey.”

But the security hole that worries Turkey most is Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria, where thousands of Turkish troops are battling an uneasy stalemate with Bashar’s regime. al-Assad is backed by Russia.

Erdogan is currently under political pressure at home for the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Ankara believes that Russian jet strikes on civilian targets in the province earlier this month are a warning to Turkey – and to Europe – that Moscow could send millions more. refugees in their own way.

Turkey’s weaknesses mean Western officials are resigned to the fact that the country is unlikely to sign a new sanctions regime against Russia if an invasion occurs.

However, the real challenge for Ankara, which enshrined the 1936 Montreux convention policy that regulates warships’ access to the Black Sea, will be what to do if Nato calls on Turkey for military support more than.

“What if Nato wants to use Turkish military facilities to support maritime or air operations?” asked a defense official from another Western country. “That would really put them in a really tough spot.”

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