War on the horizon: Will Turkey help Ukraine defeat Russia?

War on the horizon: Will Turkey help Ukraine defeat Russia?

 War on the horizon: Will Turkey help Ukraine defeat Russia?

Ukraine and Russia close to war

Tensions are rapidly rising between Ukraine and Russia as the latter gathers tens of thousands of troops at its border with Ukraine in what it believes to be a response to western provocation.

Western intelligence services believe up to 100,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s borders. Ukrainian authorities have said Moscow could be planning a military offensive at the end of January, although US officials say it is not yet clear whether President Vladimir Putin has made a decision.

“Any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response, including restrictive measures co-ordinated with partners,” EU leaders said in a statement, referring to the US and UK.

After the summit, Ursula von der Leyen, the chief of the European Commission, which is the EU executive, said the bloc was ready to impose additional sanctions on Russia. The EU’s current restrictions were in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

The warning from the EU came as Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia was increasing, not reducing, its troops on the border. He said there were “combat-ready troops, tanks, artillery, armoured units, drones [and] electronic warfare systems”.

President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia had no room to retreat in a standoff with the United States over Ukraine and would be forced into a tough response unless the West dropped its “aggressive line”.

The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary has warned Moscow that any Russian incursion into neighbouring Ukraine would be a costly mistake as tensions continue to rise following a recent troop build-up near the border.

“Any Russian incursion would be a massive strategic mistake and would be met with strength, including coordinated sanctions with our allies to impose a severe cost on Russia’s interests and economy,” Liz Truss said in a statement on Thursday.

She added the “only way out of the current situation” for Russia was through dialogue and welcomed indications from Moscow that it is willing to hold talks with the United States early next year in Geneva.

The Kremlin has denied suggestions made by Kyiv and its Western allies, which include the US and the UK, that it plans to invade Ukraine. Instead, it says the security situation in the region has been undermined by the expansion of the US-headed NATO transatlantic security alliance and Ukraine’s growing ties with the body – developments that Moscow claims threaten Russia and contravene assurances given to it as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Last week, Moscow presented the West with sweeping security demands, calling on NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, as well as roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

Many of Russia’s proposals, which would require the withdrawal of US and allied forces from central and eastern European countries that joined NATO after 1997, are seen as non-starters in the West. The US and EU are very unlikely to accept these demands, especially in such a tense geopolitical atmosphere and dangerous moment, so Russia using this to initiate a military offensive is certainly possible.

Will Turkey support Ukraine?

Turkey has developed close ties with Ukraine in recent years, with the two becoming strategic partners and enhancing cooperation in military, geopolitical and economic fields. The most significant milestone of cooperation, especially in the current context is Turkey’s recent sale of TB2 Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, the same drones that were able to consistently overcome Russian defense systems and forces in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. The sales’ significance was confirmed by Russia’s strong negative reaction to it, believing it undermined its own ties with Turkey, which have been developing in recent years, nevertheless in a complicated manner.

Turkey appears to have taken a balanced and careful stance on the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia, yet clearly ready to support Ukraine diplomatically and militarily.

Turkey is ready to facilitate, offer mediation or provide support in any way possible to de-escalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Wednesday.

Speaking to Turkish press members during the return from his Qatar visit, Erdoğan said Turkey has been closely following the developments in Ukraine and its surrounding region.

“Our hope is that tensions do not escalate any further and that stability in the region is maintained. We are ready to lend strong support to reduce the tension between Russia and Ukraine that has been rising in recent weeks and to establish a dialogue channel,” he said.

“With the consent of both parties, we can offer facilitation, mediation or support in any format desired. Of course, we will do our part for the peace of the region without hesitation,” the president underlined.

Turkey could mediate between Ukraine and Russia amid increasing tensions in the region, Erdoğan offered recently. “It is our hope that this region does not become a region dominated by war,” Erdoğan noted. “Let this region walk into the future as a region dominated by peace.”

Turkey has been in contact with both Russia and Ukraine, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also said last week, noting that Ankara advised both sides to remain calm and de-escalate the situation.

In its initial response, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed Ankara’s offer while speaking to journalists in Moscow, saying: “The fact is that Russia is not a party to the conflict in Donbass. It will be impossible to find solutions to the problem at such a summit.”

But, in a later statement, the Kremlin said that if Turkey and Erdoğan can use their influence to encourage Ukraine to implement the 2014 Minsk Protocol, Russia would welcome it.

The Minsk agreements were signed to stop the ongoing conflict between the pro-Russian separatists and the Kyiv administration. The agreements included a cease-fire in the region and a prisoner exchange while allowing the Kyiv administration to make a constitutional amendment that would give Donbass special status. The pro-Russian separatists were supposed to withdraw their weapons from the Ukrainian-Russian border. However, the agreements’ implementation has been hampered as the two sides accuse each other of violating the cease-fire.

On the other hand, Ukraine welcomed the president’s statements. “We will welcome any efforts that can help us to put an end to this war, to return Ukraine’s territories that are currently under Russian control,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a news briefing.

Russian forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in February 2014, with Russian President Vladimir Putin formally dividing the region into two separate federal subjects of the Russian Federation the following month.

Turkey, a NATO member, has criticized Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

On the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s strategic partnership with Turkey, President Zelensky visited Istanbul to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both leaders took part in the ninth meeting of the Turkish-Ukrainian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The primary purpose of this visit was to ask for Turkey’s support against Russia, a more pressing priority than trade and investment.

It is clear that the context of the meeting and Erdogan’s position on the annexation of Crimea, which he labeled “illegal and illegitimate,” added more fuel to the confrontation with Russia. However, despite the Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation and Ankara’s fear of turning the Black Sea into a “Russian lake,” it is unlikely that Turkey will go further and support Ukraine militarily in the case of a full-scale war with Russia, though it will maintain its political and technical assistance to Kyiv in order to counterbalance Russia in the Black Sea region.

Now, Ankara is raising the stakes by doubling down on its defense cooperation with Kyiv and recommitting itself to the continued sale of dozens of Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), much to Russia’s ire. Although this is not a commitment to direct military intervention, it is an important sign from Turkey that it is committed to support Ukraine in a possible war to protect its territorial integrity. The sale of another batch of drones to Ukraine at this time would provide a significant advantage to the latter in a possible war with Russia, as will be elaborated on in the next section.

Even more compelling is Turkey’s growing concern over an expansionist (and revanchist) Russia near its borders in the Black Sea and South Caucasus regions. Ankara has responded to Moscow’s aggression by becoming one of the strongest proponents of enlarging NATO membership to include both Ukraine and Georgia—even while offering to mediate the conflict in Ukraine. Ankara has simultaneously pursued a strategic partnership with Kyiv based largely on defense industry cooperation, which apart from drones also includes the sales of naval ships with stealth capabilities and the joint development of a jet engine for military aircraft.

But Turkey’s drone sale, which came five years after Israel balked at selling its own models to Ukraine for fear of antagonizing Russia, is particularly significant.

The importance of Turkish drones

Having witnessed the devastating impact of Turkey’s innovative drone-based tactics— combining the UAV’s battlefield intelligence and precision rocket strikes with closely coordinated standoff artillery assaults aimed at neutralizing defenses and capitalizing on air superiority—Russia has plenty of reason to worry. Such attacks fought Russian and Syrian government forces to a standstill in Syria’s Idlib province in March 2020 and prompted Russia to recommit to its previous agreement with Turkey to protect Idlib as a “safe zone.” Just months later, Turkey reversed an offensive by Russian mercenaries and Libyan fighters that had already reached the outskirts of Tripoli.

And during last year’s Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Azerbaijani military—another early purchaser of Turkish drones—employed the same tactical approach to neutralize Armenia’s advanced Russian weaponry, including air defense systems and armor, with startling precision and speed.

That’s why Russia has signaled its concern about Turkish UAVs on numerous occasions, most recently when Russian President Vladimir Putin warned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a December 3 phone call that the drones helped enable “destructive” behavior by Ukraine. Ankara responded the next day by affirming that drone deliveries to Ukraine would continue—then, days later, sought to restore the diplomatic balance by offering its mediation efforts. Though Moscow did not take up this offer, it has been careful to avoid incendiary rhetoric toward Ankara.

As scholar Francis Fukuyama recently observed, Ukraine’s use of Turkish UAVs could be a “complete game-changer,” while analysts at the Royal United Services Institute think tank believe Turkey’s massed drone and artillery strikes could even render the battle tank obsolete.

The Russians are placing their bets based on the Pantsir short-range and mobile air defense system that has seen action in Syria and Libya. The Turks and Fukuyama base their arguments on Bayraktar’s success in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Syria – and more recently in the Ethiopian Tigray war.

A lot depends on whether the Russians can actually deliver positive results thwarting drone attacks in the Donbass region in Ukraine. So far, there has been at least one successful Bayraktar attack.

The new format of relations between Turkey and Ukraine provides for joint security measures. This primarily refers to bilateral consultations. Such rapprochement will lead to the coordination of actions between Ukraine and Turkey in the Black Sea region and now even the Donbass region to strengthen security.

Although Turkey will almost certainly not directly militarily intervene in a possible conflict between Ukraine and Russia on the border, it has and will continue to provide indirect military support in the form of comprehensive military agreements that will help Ukraine gain significant strength in a confrontation with Russia. This military edge is likely to help Ukraine thwart a Russian attempt at invasion.

Hazem Zahab

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