Turkey, a Sometimes Wavering NATO Ally, Backs Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey agreed on Thursday to expand supplies of one of the Ukrainian Army’s most sophisticated weapons, a long-range, Turkish-made armed drone whose use in combat for the first time in Ukraine last fall infuriated Russian officials.

Mr. Erdogan’s decision to provide weapons and diplomatically back Ukraine was a public rebuke to Moscow and another complicating factor in the mix of cooperation and conflict between Turkey and Russia, historical rivals for supremacy in the region around the Black Sea.

The promise of more arms for Ukraine, especially an offensive weapon like the Turkish drone, is an extremely sensitive issue for Moscow, which claims that its security is threatened and that it has no choice but to mass troops on the Ukrainian border. The Ukrainians, while welcoming diplomatic support, have said that what they primarily need are more weapons to deter any attack.

The Turkish leader’s visit to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, to announce the arms deal came as diplomatic dividing lines are being drawn in the crisis, with the United States, Britain and Eastern European nations sending weaponry to bolster Ukraine in the event of war with Russia. An American airlift of anti-tank missiles and small-arms ammunition continued Thursday with the arrival of a seventh cargo jet of weaponry to Kyiv.

At the same time, Russia denounced the Biden administration’s announcement that it would send additional troops to NATO countries, with the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, accusing the United States of “igniting tensions on the European continent.” Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said Thursday that the Russian military would send additional troops and equipment for military exercises in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, adding to tens of thousands of soldiers already deployed there.

President Emmanuel Macron of France pressed a diplomatic effort in separate phone calls with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. The calls are intended to lead to a summit of Russian, Ukrainian and European leaders to help defuse the threat of a Russian military incursion.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, left, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Thursday in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.Credit…Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Erdogan’s visit to Kyiv was mostly a show of support for Mr. Zelensky’s government, but the Turkish leader also offered to play a mediating role between Russia and Ukraine, showing he is walking a fine line between backing Ukraine and disrupting a complicated relationship with Russia.

“We are ready to fulfill our part to end the crisis between two friendly countries that Turkey neighbors across the Black Sea.” So far, neither government has taken him up on the idea.

Turkey is a member of NATO but also maintains economic and military industry ties with Russia. And the two countries are also on opposing sides in two Middle Eastern wars, in Syria and Libya, and in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the South Caucasus region.

Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West

The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.

  • Competing for Influence: For months, the threat of confrontation has been growing in a stretch of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
  •  Threat of Invasion: As the Russian military builds its presence near Ukraine, Western nations are seeking to avert a worsening of the situation.
  • Energy Politics: Europe is a huge customer of Russia’s fossil fuels. The rising tensions in Ukraine are driving fears of a midwinter cutoff.
  • Migrant Crisis: As people gathered on the eastern border of the European Union, Russia’s uneasy alliance with Belarus triggered additional friction.
  • Militarizing Society: With a “youth army” and initiatives promoting patriotism, the Russian government is pushing the idea that a fight might be coming.

Mr. Erdogan said Thursday that he wanted to “lower the tensions instead of adding fuel to the flames” of the conflict, but did not back away from the deal to provide arms to Ukraine, which was first negotiated in 2019 and expanded with a new accord on Thursday.

Turkey has sold Ukraine armed, Bayraktar TB2 drones that the Ukrainian military used for the first time in combat in the war with Russian-backed separatists last October. The drone destroyed a separatist howitzer from miles away, surprising the separatists.

The missile strike suggested a tipping of the military balance in the eastern Ukraine war using a NATO-provided weapon, angering Russia. Mr. Putin mentioned the drone attack last fall in speeches when pressing his case that Russia’s security was threatened.

And in December, Mr. Putin protested the drone sales directly in a telephone call with Mr. Erdogan, saying the Ukrainians’ use of Turkish armed drones was “destructive” and “provocative activity,” according to a Kremlin readout of the call.

A Bayraktar drone at Ukraine’s Independence Day military parade in Kyiv in August.Credit…Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukraine’s minister of defense, Aleksei Reznikov, said Thursday that Turkey had agreed to localize production of the drone at a factory outside of Kyiv. The Ukrainian version of the Bayraktar will fly with a domestically made engine. Turkey would also buy some drones of this model for its own armed forces, Mr. Reznikov said.

The site would also become a training center for Ukrainian drone pilots, Mr. Reznikov said.

Mr. Zelensky praised the drone deal, which was a clear snub to Russia’s yearslong objections to Ukraine obtaining the Turkish drone technology and its urgent demands last fall that NATO countries cease arming Ukraine.

“This is new technology, new jobs and a strengthening of the defensive capabilities of Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Earlier Thursday, in a bid to reassure Moscow, the Turkish defense minister, Hulusi Akar,stressed Ankara’s commitment to a treaty that restricts NATO forces’ access to the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, which Turkey controls. The accord, the Montreux Convention, prohibits aircraft carriers from crossing the straits and limits other warships to short voyages in the Black Sea.

In 2014, during a conflict in Georgia when Washington was seeking to deter Russian military action, Turkey refused to let American warships into the Black Sea.

Mr. Erdogan has military deals with Ukraine and Russia, including the purchase of a Russian air defense system that drew criticism from fellow NATO members. That system, called the S-400, put Russian technology inside the territory of a key Western ally; American officials were deeply angered by the move.

Russian tanks during drills Thursday at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov Region of Russia.Credit…Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

But on Thursday, the commitment to arm Ukraine at a moment of threatened war with Russia sent an unambiguous signal, as did the martial-themed reception Mr. Erdogan received in Kyiv.

During the visit, Mr. Erdogan stood at attention to observe an elaborate parade by a Ukrainian military honor guard and brass band on the grounds of the Tsarist-era Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, used for formal visits.

When it was over, Mr. Erdogan greeted the soldiers with a phrase in Ukrainian that is associated with the country’s post-2014 struggles with Russia, another, though symbolic, sign of taking sides in the conflict.

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s messaging toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

Rising tension. Western countries have tried to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. But administration officials recently warned that the U.S. could throw its weight behind a Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade.

“Glory to Ukraine!” Mr. Erdogan said. The soldiers shouted back, “Glory to its heroes!”

Turkey and Ukraine also signed a deal intended to increase tradebetween the two countries to $10 billion from about $7 billion now. The countries also signed agreements to deepen cooperation between their respective police forces and an agreement on closer coordination between their ministries of defense.

The seven American cargo jets have carried a total of about 600 tons of military assistance so far including anti-tank weapons and small-arms ammunition.

The shipments included additional Javelin anti-tank missiles, which the United States has provided since 2018. Britain has airlifted about 2,000 light anti-tank missiles, known as NLAWs, to Ukraine in the past two weeks.

With approval from the United States, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, said they would transfer more Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger antiaircraft missiles, plugging some holes in Ukraine’s shoddy air defenses. Poland has also said it will send antiaircraft missiles.

The Ukrainian Army on Wednesday at the frontline, near the village of Trokhizbenka, Ukraine.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The shipments may have reached an important tipping point, Andriy Zahorodniuk, a former Ukrainian minister of defense, said in an interview Thursday. With the additional British and American supplies, Ukraine now has more anti-tank missiles than Russia has operational main battle tanks in its military, he said, though Russia’s total including tanks in reserve is still larger.

Ukraine, he said, does not have to reach a so-called “capability parity” with the Russian Army — an impossibility in any case — to deter a military intervention, he said.

“Invading somebody’s territory is much more difficult than defending,” he said. “The task in defending is to cause such a high level of casualties that it becomes unbearable.”

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