The skies over Eastern Ukraine are becoming more crowded as Kiev looks to Ankara for weapons.
As if the relationship between Turkey and Russia couldn’t get any more complex, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced over the weekend that his government will purchase a dozen Turk-made Bayraktar TB2 combat drones for $69 million. Since the Ukrainian military is engaged in conflict with Russian-backed forces, it’s anyone’s guess how that will affect the relationship between Istanbul and Moscow.
Its manufacturer, Baykar, says the TB2 can fly for 24 hours, reach 24,000 feet, and carry a 121-pound payload.
Ukraine has been accelerating development of its combat drones, but still lacks the ability to meet some needs, says Samuel Bendett, a researcher at the CNA Corporation and a fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. Ukraine is developing a mid-altitude armed drone that bears a strong resemblance to the Bayraktar, the Gorlitsa, but, says Bendett, it’s about a year away from deployment “so this Turkish purchase may be a stop-gap measure for Ukraine to get smart on the current [unmanned combat aerial vehicle, or UCAV] use. This would be similar to what Russian has done when they purchased older Israeli UAVs to fill their own capability gap,” he says. “While Ukraine has many UAV – as well as UCAV — plans, only few projects came to fruition, such as several small ISR models currently in use in the country’s east.”
Russian-Turkish relations are an object of concern and speculation in the West. The NATO ally is nominally aligned against Russia, and in 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria. But Moscow-Ankara ties have since been warming; officials have been discussing a plan to co-manage security in Syria’s Idlib province, a delicate affair since Russia backs the Assad government, which Turkey opposes.
And last year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan bought Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. NATO allies worry that the Turkish S-400s, due to deploy in October, will extract information gathered by the super-networked F-35 aircraft — and send it to Moscow.